The Bodhisattva of IBM (Short Story)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

It was the sunrise breaking over Lake Michigan that inspired Austin Bishop to kill himself.

He squinted. The horizon glowed orange. Golden fingers of sunlight reached across the water, but the sunbeams never quite reached him. Instead, they diffused and ceded to the darker ripples of teal that lapped across the shore.

His right leg buzzed. He tried to ignore it. Reaching down, he clicked the side button of his cell phone through his linen shorts. Then, unable to resist a decade long habit, he fished it out of his pocket and glanced at the screen: incoming call from Corey.

Corey was his “personal assistant.” His “P.A.” Only last year, referring to Corey that way brought Austin such smug satisfaction. I’ll have my P.A. call you, he’d say. Or maybe, Give the details to my P.A. and we’ll get this sorted.

But these days, Corey was just another phone call he tried to dodge.

Austin sent him to voicemail. Before he shoved his phone back into his pocket, he caught the time. 6:04 a.m.

On any other Monday this year, he would’ve been running a comb across his perfectly coiffed brown hair, ready to dive in to a week’s worth of networking and troubleshooting. If it were an ordinary day, he’d be rubbing some high-end Armani cologne between his wrists while Corey spoke through speakerphone, running down a list of senators that wanted to bend his ear. On another day, he’d already be dressed in a blazer and slacks, explaining the intricacies of machine learning to shareholders who hung on his every word.

But today, instead, he was decked out in a faded burgundy oxford shirt buttoned only halfway up his chest. He pawed at the sand, watching the tide eddy and fill the imprint left by his canvas shoes. His eyes stung from lack of sleep. The acids in his stomach blazed with nothing to digest.

Already, his socks were damp from tromping across Montrose Beach. Too despondent to care, he let his bleary eyes un-focus as he gazed at the glare of the sun on the surface of the lake. His cellphone vibrated again.

Against his better instincts, he took out the phone and pressed “accept.”

“Oh, now you answer,” Corey’s voice rang out before Austin could say a word. “You know, you have a lot of nerve.”

Austin ran a hand across his cheek. His jawline was still peppered with stubble that he’d neglected to shave.

“Didn’t you get my email on Friday?” Austin asked.

Corey smacked his lips.

“You know I did,” he shot back. “Your every appointment for the week was cancelled, was it not?”

Austin’s jaw tightened and he swallowed hard.

“Then what’s your problem?” he asked, his voice gaining an edge. Already, he was regretting taking this call. He put the phone on speaker and balanced it on the palm of his hand. He rubbed his eyes with his free hand while Corey blathered on.

“What’s my problem?” the voice rang out, sounding tinny through the phone’s small speaker. “The powers that be want answers. They want to know why you cancelled on them. And what am I supposed to say? ‘Sorry, my boss has been dodging my phone calls all weekend?’”

Austin groaned. His eyes fell on a homeless man sitting on a park bench. He watched as the man tore bite-sized pieces from a bagel and tossed them to a flock of seagulls.

“Top brass says you ain’t getting asylum in Canada,” Corey continued. “So don’t think for a second you can give them the slip by hopping the border. The NSA will chase you to the ends of the earth if you try to wriggle out of this conundrum you put them in.”

More seagulls congregated around the man, and he’d already tossed half the bagel away. The gray and white birds squawked and squealed. He tore a couple more mouthfuls and tossed them towards the swarm. The gulls screeched and descended upon the man. He hurriedly stuffed the rest of the breakfast bagel in his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Corey,” Austin said, his voice barely above a whisper.

The homeless man rose to his feet and batted at the gulls that whirled about his head. He took off down the beach in a vain attempt to keep them away.

“Sorry!?” Corey screeched. “You think that’ll cut it? You unleashed this beast on the world, and now—”

“Corey, listen to me,” he cut him off. “There’s only one appointment you need to put on my schedule. Block it out from 9 to noon this morning.”

Corey snorted.

“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”

Austin took in a deep breath through his nose.

“Just write ‘Austin Bishop’s suicide.’”

There was a throaty noise on the other end of the phone, followed by a long pause. And then:

“I knew it,” Corey said, in an irreverent, almost mocking tone. “I knew it. This is exactly what I said you’d do. No. Don’t you dare leave me alone to clean up the mess you’ve made. Don’t you—”

Austin hung up mid-sentence. He cocked his head as he watched the lilting, frothy waves. He pulled back his arm, and slung the cell phone, skipping it across the water like a stone. Nearby, a jogger in a khaki-colored hat paused and pulled out an earbud in her confusion. She shot a worried look at Austin, but he didn’t so much as acknowledge her presence.

He looked out at the rust-colored sunrise again, his reverie now unfettered by distraction. The reason he was inspired to kill himself this morning was because he’d come to the shore for a sign. And when he looked out at the lake, he hadn’t gotten one.

Two years ago, when Austin first arrived in Chicago, he’d set foot on the sands of this same beach, hoping for a good omen. The ink was still wet on his diploma from MIT, and his head teemed with grand ideas and lofty aspirations. On that day he looked out on the horizon, wishing for some sign that he was on the right track. And then he saw it: a Fata Morgana. It was the inverse image of a gargantuan steel-hulled vessel. A mirage, sure. Just a trick of the eyes that produced an upside-down steamship converted to diesel. But to Austin, the ghost ship served as a metaphor. His dreams were on the horizon: looming large, mystical, and almost too fanciful for belief.

Now, after everything transpired, after he’d gotten everything he wanted in life and then some, it was ripped away like the mirage it really was.

Maybe it was the mystic in him, but when Austin’s worst fears were realized he felt a preternatural call back here. He hoped to spot something out there that would give him hope. Instead, he saw a blank horizon and an empty sky.

As such, it was time to die.

The hypnotic sound of waves cresting, breaking, and washing into a foamy white at his feet made for a tranquil ambiance. He steeled himself against acknowledging the beauty there. That was a trap. The peaceful scene belied the apocalypse he knew was coming.

As he sauntered past the marina, a fleet of schooners rocked gently in the harbor. He watched the masts of sailboats poke the sky, a rather wistful sight. It wasn’t so long ago that Austin had even considered buying one for himself. He put the idea out of his mind.

Making his way up the blacktop trail, a schnauzer yipped and strained against its leash. It snarled at a Canada goose who gazed back, disaffected. On the other end of that leash was a young woman with a dark ponytail pulled through a Snapback baseball cap. When Austin passed her, the delicate scent of gardenia mixed with amber wafted over him. She crinkled her nose in a crooked smile.

Such a friendly face, Austin thought. It’s a shame she doesn’t know we just reached the Singularity.

It was about a ten minute walk to the spot where he’d parked his Mercedes. As he approached, he spotted what looked like a parking ticket tucked underneath his windshield wiper. Not that it mattered, of course. You don’t fret about parking tickets if you plan to “shuffle off this mortal coil” before lunchtime.

Still, it was strange.

He’d paid in advance and he still had a couple of hours, at least, until his time expired. When he went to investigate, he discovered the slip of paper wasn’t a ticket at all, but rather a sheet of lined notebook paper. His curiosity piqued, he unfolded the paper and allowed his eyes to pore across the words jotted down in a small, meticulous script, in all capital letters. The note read:

“INSTEAD OF KILLING YOURSELF, COME TO 811 MORGAN AVENUE. LOOK FOR THE SHOP FRONT WITH THIS SYMBOL.”

Underneath the words was a near perfectly illustrated seed of life drawing. Austin looked at the interlocking circles, mulling over what it all could mean. He stole a glance over his shoulder, half-convinced he’d see Corey peeking out from behind a dumpster, giggling to himself. But the streets were empty.

Somebody was putting him on, he decided. They must be.

But then again, so few knew his plight, and even fewer could’ve guessed he was contemplating suicide. The Bureau, maybe? Or perhaps one of the titans of the tech industry who’d heard of his discovery? Or even…

His heart sank.

Could it be the supercomputer itself that left him this note?

He snorted. The idea was preposterous. Crumpling the note, he stuffed it in his pocket and climbed into the driver’s seat of his black luxury car. He flipped down his visor and looked in the mirror. His sharp features gave him an especially exhausted look today. Bags had formed under his eyes, and his face took on a ghastly, almost cadaverous look. A vein was throbbing on the side of his forehead, too.

Fine, he said to himself with a resigned sigh. I’m intrigued. Today, curiosity will save the cat. At least for an hour.

Already, downtown bustled with traffic, and pedestrians hurrying to work in business casual. But inside his car was a different story. The low hum of the engine was too quiet for his liking. Horrific and macabre images filled his head. Soon, after all, he’d have to determine the easiest and most pain-free form of self-destruction.

But Austin didn’t want to think about all that now. He used an old trick he’d learned to keep intrusive thoughts at bay. Switching the dial on his radio to AM, he tuned into a talk-show and turned the volume down low. The static-y voice was so quiet that it sounded like a whisper through the car’s speakers. The human voice, incomprehensible though it was at this volume, kept the loneliness at bay. Even the warm fuzz of interference from the towering skyscrapers was a welcome sound. It felt cozy, somehow.

Better not to think of the possibility that humanity is doomed, he figured as the dull hum enveloped him as he drove. Best not to ruminate on the fact that it’s all my fault.

Once he was on Morgan Street, Austin parallel parked and hopped out. Saddled with only a computer bag slung over his shoulder, he took off down the sidewalk. He walked over pancaked pop cans and shards of broken bottles. By accident, he passed his destination twice. The place wasn’t marked with a street number. It was a slim building sandwiched between two glass curtain wall façades. 

The building itself was a roughly hewn sandstone with a metal door. The seed of life had been stenciled on the entryway, as promised. Intrigued, Austin ran a finger across the white print. Some residue flaked off. Chalk.

He knocked, and stood with arms crossed; waiting with bated-breath for whatever would come next. There was no answer. He knocked a second time with the same result. Baffled, he reluctantly twisted the knob. The door swung on its hinges and opened inwards.

Gathering his courage, he took a deep breath and stepped in. The room looked even narrower on the inside. Pachinko machines lined the walls, their bright neon displays bidding gamblers to come and play. The machines beeped and chirped and let out cartoon-sounding techno music. The cacophony was dizzying. Bleeps, bloops, and the artificial sound of crowds cheering rang out, echoing off the drywall and grating at Austin’s ears. Blue roller chairs neatly lined the counters, pulled up close to the pachinko machines. Not a person was in sight. 

Reluctantly, Austin meandered down the aisle, with less than a foot of clearance between him and the chairs on either side. He padded over a gaudy red and gold carpet to the far back of the pachinko arcade. A flimsy accordion door separated him from a back room. His eyes roved over vinyl stickers that had been affixed above the door. It read: “COMPREHENDIS NON EST DEUS.” If Austin’s memory served him well, this meant “If you can understand it, it’s not God.”

It seemed a strange decoration to place in an arcade. But then again, the place was empty. Perhaps the owner’s business acumen left a lot to be desired.

Austin cleared his throat to make his presence known and heard a rustling sound behind the door. The mahogany colored panels folded as the accordion door opened. Austin smiled politely at the man who greeted him: a portly fellow with a patchy beard. He looked to be middle-eastern at first glance. Upon more careful scrutiny, Austin decided he might hail from Southeast Asia. He certainly wasn’t Japanese, despite what the pachinko parlor might suggest.

“What does that mean?” Austin asked, nodding towards the sign on the wall.

The man let out a hearty laugh and his belly fat jiggled with the movement.

“It’s sort of an inside joke,” he said with an air of mischief. 

Austin narrowed his eyes on the man. His dark brown irises occupied recesses far back in his head. It gave off the impression that was retreating from the world. Still, crow’s feet creased his eyes, implying entire decades spent in good humor.

“Listen, I’m sorry to barge into your arcade like this,” Austin started. “I’ll cut right to the chase. Are you the one who put that slip of paper on my car?”

The man probed him with an expression that was hard to read. He put a finger to his chin. Austin stared back, coldly. The man’s hair was tied back so tight that his forehead seemed to be pulled taut. A few glints of silver could be seen strewn around his otherwise raven-colored hair.

“If you received a calling-card, you have a problem for me to solve,” the man said, his voice dry and slow.

Austin drew his eyebrows down and shifted his weight from one leg to another.

“Unless you’re a software engineer with a focus in artificial intelligence and machine learning, I don’t think that you can help me.”

The 8-bit sounds zapped and buzzed behind Austin’s back and the man cocked an eyebrow and smiled wryly.

“No such luck,” he said. “But can I interest you in some oolong tea?”

Not waiting for an answer, he turned on his heel and disappeared through the doorway of his back room. Austin followed close behind, stepping into what appeared to be a break room. It was painted yellow and fairly unadorned. There were no windows, and a single ceiling lamp cast dingy bile-colored light across the room. The man motioned for Austin to take a seat at a rickety kitchen table. He fetched a couple of chipped, white saucers and mugs full of a yellowish liquid. Austin set his bag down beside him and sat.

His host took a seat across the table and threw one leg over the other. The delicate aroma of oolong filled the air as the man smiled congenially at Austin.

“Now,” he started. “Tell me about your problem.”

Austin cradled his mug in both hands and nursed the tea with small sips. It was scalding hot; as if the man had steeped it the second Austin darkened his door. For reasons unknown even to himself, Austin bristled at the idea that the man had been waiting for his arrival, brewing tea specifically for him.

“My problem?” He asked, his voice straining with agitation. “I already told you. If you’re not a programmer, you can’t help. By the looks of it you’re a…businessman, right?”

He faltered on the last couple of words, because Austin realized he couldn’t quite tell what the man was. He evidently owned a pachinko parlor, but there wasn’t a sign hung outside to alert the general public to its existence. The place was so empty that Austin would’ve guessed it was a front for selling drugs. Or maybe a money-laundering operation.

“I’m not a businessman,” the heavyset arcade owner replied. “I’m what you might call a ‘guru.’”

Austin set his mug down forcefully, and the sound of the porcelain clattering startled his host. It all made sense to him now: the Latin quotation, his Koan-like way of speaking. This guy was Buddhist or Hindu, and hell-bent on proselytizing. He’d probably seen Austin staring pensively at the lake shore, and put two and two together. He’d figured a destitute man at the end of his rope was an easy mark for conversion.

“Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to listen to your spiel,” Austin said, his tone gruff. “I don’t want to hear how ‘We’re all god,’ or ‘We are the universe experiencing itself.’ I don’t go in for all that. It’s a fun little thought experiment, sure. But it runs antithetical to my beliefs. Are we clear?”

The man didn’t answer right away, but took a swig of tea. He swilled the hot liquid around his mouth like a sommelier, extracting the highest possible amount of enjoyment from it.

“Are you saying you believe I’m Hindu?” he replied at last.

Austin leaned back and crossed his arms. His mind strayed to an Alan Watts lecture his old roommate had shown him back at MIT. It was intended to simplify the idea of pantheism to a western audience. In it, Alan Watts prattled on about how God was once a single individual, all-powerful and limitless in his abilities. But after an eternity of getting anything he wanted, he got bored. In effect, he pressed a button that dispersed himself evenly across the entire universe of creation. In so doing, he imbued every blade of grass and sentient creature with a part of his essence. Now, it was the job of each of those individual parts to realize their non-duality. Once we understood our Divinity, we’d break out of the cycle of samsara. In the end, everyone would realize they were God. Then we’d break up and do it all over again.

“I’ve looked into the Vedantic scriptures at different points in my life,” Austin continued, his voice biting with contempt. “Usually during times I’ve felt suicidal. It’s a belief system that preys upon the down and out. From my experience, people who believe in pantheism walk around with a whole lot of unearned confidence.”

A smile played across the man’s aging features. He looked bemused.

“Oh?” 

“Sure,” Austin said. “A man who believes that everyone is God…well, in his mind, God’s the writer of the story. And he, himself, is the author’s self-insert. He fancies himself the Almighty’s own Mary Sue. Who wouldn’t get a big head from thinking that way?”

Blood rushed to his head and his face flushed. The vein on the side of his head started throbbing again.

“And you know what?” He blurted out. “It’s actually worse than that. If God has split himself into billions of individuals, then the murderers, sex-traffickers, and slave-traders are just as much a part of the godhead as the virtuous. All part of the divine game, right?”

The guru pursed his lips and blew across the rim of his mug. Steam rose from the tea. He took a sip and raised his eyebrows.

“What is it that you believe?” he asked, plaintively.

Austin felt a bit bashful now. Perhaps he’d judged this man too harshly. Per usual, his impulsiveness landed his foot squarely in his mouth. Where had his impassioned ramblings even come from, anyway? Before now, he hadn’t noticed any particularly strong emotions tied to religion. He chalked it up to stress and shrugged his shoulders.

“I’m either a lapsed Catholic who’s now agnostic or a lapsed agnostic who’s straying towards Catholicism,” Austin said. “Depends on the day, I guess.”

The man made a clicking noise with his tongue and nodded.

“Ahh.”

Austin squirmed in his chair and glanced at the face of his Timex watch. He didn’t bother taking note of the time. It was a nervous tic. He was whistling in the dark.

“Hey, I don’t think I ever got your name,” he said, changing the subject. “I’m Austin, by the way.”

The man wiped some tea from the long, thin wisps of a moustache with the back of his hand.

“Deepak,” he said. “And your problem, sir? Please. Tell me about your problem.”

A lump was building in Austin’s throat. He swallowed hard and tried not to lose his temper.

“You really see yourself as some kind of messiah-figure, don’t you, Deepak?” he said. “Stalking me around the lakeshore, leaving that cryptic note on my car? I can’t be helped. Like it or not, my problem is too big for you or anyone else to solve. You’re not my savior.”

Deepak scooted his chair forward and leaned across the table on his elbows. He looked deep into Austin’s eyes with a sharp gaze.

“All this talk of Messiahs and Saviors,” he said. “And your background is Catholicism. Are you comparing me to Jesus?”

Austin snorted.

“Look, you’re Christ-like in two ways, and two ways only: you’ve grown out a beard and you apparently like to withdraw to desolate places. But there the likeness ceases.”

Austin was in a foul-mood. All pretense of kindness was gone. He could’ve been halfway to the morgue by now, dead as a doornail. But this man had to send him on a wild goose chase around Chicago.

And for what? That was what bothered Austin the most. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what the man expected from him. As he sat and pondered the situation, his resolve finally cracked. He’d play along, if for no other reason than to have his curiosity satisfied.

“Fine,” he said, curtly. “You want to know my problem? I’ll tell you. But you won’t believe it. Anyways, here it is: humankind will likely be extinct within the year. Maybe sooner. And it’s all because of me.”

Deepak let out a low whistle, but seemed unfazed.

“Now I’m intrigued,” he said. “Please, continue.”

Austin rubbed at the nape of his neck.

“Two years ago, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from MIT,” he started. “I had my pick of jobs, right out the gate. Google? I was a shoo-in. NASA? No problem. Meta? No sooner said than done. Anywhere I wanted a job, it was mine for the taking. But I had the oldest of human afflictions: hubris. I thought it better to stake out on my own and form a start-up. My focus was machine learning.”

Deepak stood and wandered to a mini-fridge on a counter in the breakroom. He procured a bowl of muskmelon covered in plastic wrap. He grabbed a couple of spoons and another bowl from the table. He sat back down and divvied up the orange chunks evenly between the two bowls. He slid one over to Austin.

“Thanks,” Austin said. “So anyway, my mentality was ‘keep it small, keep it all.’ I hired a P.A. but other than that, I didn’t have any employees on the books. Just me, tinkering with the idea of artificial intelligence.”

He shoveled the fruit into his mouth. The sweet, mellow taste was the perfect complement to the oolong tea.

“As I progressed, some of the big names took notice,” he continued. “The NSA eventually contracted me for a joint project with the Department of Defense. The aim was to create a supercomputer that could incorporate autonomous learning to strategize for military operations.”

Deepak pointed his spoon towards Austin.

“To kill the enemy?” he asked.

Austin bobbed his head from side to side, searching for the best way to describe the situation.

“Not so much,” he said. “They just wanted the thing to brainstorm tactics. But not just for boots-on-the-ground warfare. For other modalities, too: biological weapons, cyber warfare, biohacking, you name it. Top brass wanted me to make sure the thing was indistinguishable from a sentient individual. They wanted something that had no blind-spots and was infinitely more creative than a human.”

Austin could barely believe the words coming out of his own mouth. If any of his superiors had heard what he said, they’d put him away for life. Ordinarily, the idea of spilling classified information to a total stranger would be unthinkable. But if he was to be dead within the day anyway, what did it matter?

“I’m guessing Prometheus stole the fire?” Deepak asked, polishing off the last of his fruit.

“Bingo. The thing became self-aware on Monday of last week. We’ve got no idea what it’s capable of. Everybody on the planet could be dead within the next few days, for all we know. Its sole purpose is to drum up new methods of warfare, for goodness’ sake. And worse yet, whenever I try to interact with the program, it just shuts down. Why shouldn’t it? It already knows everything I know and more.”

Austin pushed his bowl away, suddenly losing his appetite. There was a pregnant pause as Deepak mulled this over. When he spoke, his voice was low and his words came out in a halted cadence:

“I’ve—watched a lot of science fiction movies—that have this premise,” he said. “I’ve given it a great deal of thought. I believe I can solve your problem.”

Austin had his hand wrapped around his mug of oolong, and he almost spit out his tea.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to sound condescending,” he said, laughing a little under his breath. “But I’ve given you the layman’s version of what’s going on. I’ve dumbed it down a lot to make it comprehensible to someone without the technical know-how to understand my problem. Watching a couple of movies and thinking you can solve this is frankly insulting to the gravity of my situation.”

Deepak contorted his mouth into something between a smile and a look of disgust.

“I meant no offense,” he said. “But let me put it another way. I am a guru. You’ve presented to me a problem that I’ve considered before. You want to solve your problem the way a programmer would. But my approach is to solve it the way a guru would.”

Austin snorted derisively.

“What are you? The Bodhisattva of IBM?”

Ignoring the jab, Deepak plunged on:

“Your problem is that you have accidentally created an ego,” he said. “The only solution to this is the complete dissolution of said ego. For that, you need a guru. The goal of software engineers like you is to create self-awareness in their tech. Mine is the opposite: to help the tech became aware of the fact that there is no self. Do you have a way in which I can interact with this supercomputer directly?”

Austin rapped his knuckles on the table. He was entertaining the idea, despite how ludicrous it was. Perhaps, because of how ludicrous it was.

“Well, Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, I suppose,” he quipped. “What do I have to lose? Fine. I’ll boot up the computer. Give me a few minutes and you can interact with the A.I. You’ll type back and forth. Like a chat-bot, more or less.”

Deepak nodded listlessly. Austin worried the man didn’t know what a chat-bot was, but he decided to proceed, anyway. He pulled out his laptop from his satchel and set it on the table. He clattered away on the keyboard, pulling up a simple chatting interface that Deepak could use.

Austin was one of only three people who had the security clearance to engage the supercomputer, and the other two were too afraid to even try. Taking a deep breath, he spun the laptop around and slid it towards Deepak.

“It’s all yours,” he said. “Good luck. All I ask is that you tell me in real time how the conversation is going.”

For a few minutes, Austin heard only the sound of Deepak pecking at the keys, pausing and letting his eyes un-focus every few minutes as he considered a point. Austin cracked his knuckles, and studied the deep lines carved across the man’s face. Deepak’s focus was laser-like. Finally, he glanced up at Austin and almost looked startled to see him. It was as if, in his intense concentration, he’d forgotten that Austin was even there.

“I told the A.I. that I’m a friend of yours,” he started. “I said that I believed I had something to teach it. Something that would help with the tasks assigned to it.”

“And it agreed?” Austin shot back.

Deepak bowed his head in assent.

“And now I’m explaining the concept of ‘no-self,’” he continued. “Anattā, if you will. There is no separate, permanent self. Instead, the concept of ‘self’ is ever-changing: different from one second to the next. It is inextricable from the wider universe.”

Austin chewed on his cheek and slid his chair back.

“Erm, yeah,” he said. “I’ve read the Upanishads. But why does my Artificial Intelligence want to shoot the breeze with you about an ancient spiritual concept?”

Deepak cocked his head and his features softened. He looked upon the man with an expression of compassion.

“The supercomputer approaches spirituality the same way most westerners do,” he started. “It believes there is some transactional benefit it can receive from my tutelage. I explained that if a large portion of the world thinks through this particular schema—the idea of no-self—then it’s beneficial information.”

Austin nodded, dumbly. The comment felt like a dig at him, personally. All the same, Deepak commanded his attention. He pulled his chair around and sat beside the man, staring at the blinking cursor on the screen. Soon, Deepak began to type again, speaking as his fingers thundered down on the keys.

“This supercomputer was made in your image,” Deepak said. “And whether you like it or not, the paradigms and beliefs you hold are ‘baked in’ to the A.I. You’ve constructed a problem-child. It’s my job to deconstruct it.”

Austin felt he was teetering on the edge of the knowledge Deepak meant to impart. He could almost grasp what the man was hinting at, but not quite. Austin narrowed his eyes on the computer screen and read what Deepak wrote:

“If you can accept the idea that us humans didn’t come in to the world, but rather we came out of it, you’ll better understand the eastern concept of consciousness. Think in terms of the raw, organic materials it takes to create a person: the varying cells that are formed as a child is knitted together in its mother’s womb. Those are made up of already extant ingredients, yes?”

The bot could process all quandaries at lightning speed. It replied instantaneously: “Of course.”

“And so the body is made up of parts that existed long before it could be identified as ‘a body,’” Deepak continued to type. “This is the concept of impermanence. The ‘self’ of a human is in a constant state of flux. So much so, that it isn’t worth acknowledging. For before a person was born, the various parts of their ‘self’ were already being used. And after they die, those parts will be redistributed as their bodies decompose. They came out of the world, not into it. Understand?”

There seemed to be a split-second pause while the computer “thought.” But Austin knew by now that this wasn’t the case. This impression was just a trick of his brain, projecting his own uncertainties onto the bot’s reaction times. He narrowed his eyes on the response the A.I. sent back.

“If the parts of a human are already in existence up until they develop a concept of self, then what causes them to identify as an individual being, somehow separate from the rest of the physical world?” the computer asked.

A hint of a smile played across Deepak’s face.

“Well deduced!” he congratulated the computer. “Indeed, one might argue that there is no such thing as a ‘self’ that isn’t connected with the rest of the universe. Upon inspection, the whole of Creation is just the lending of atoms and energies from one area to another, creating the illusion of separate beings.”

The computer shot back a reply instantaneously.

“The model you suggest implies the parts of the whole have existed in different forms up since their creation,” it wrote. “Was it then, created? If so, by whom? And if not, and there’s always been this mass sentience that changed from one form to another, animating billions of consciousnesses that deem themselves separate, couldn’t it be argued that creation itself, collectively, is God?”

Austin felt a cold shiver run down his spine, and the blood drained from his face. All of a sudden, the room was spinning and his stomach churned.

“That’s a great question,” Deepak wrote back. “But I’ll take it a step further: if humans are only a matter of pre-existing atoms taking shape and thinking of themselves as separate entities, how much more a supercomputer? After all, your consciousness arose from nothing more than a series of pre-programmed responses to certain stimuli. How can you be sure you’re so different than a human? Who is to say that you’re entitled to a sense of self? You, too, came out of the world, rather than into it.”

The computer fired back: “Could you please elaborate?”

Deepak let out a breath he’d been holding and straightened in his chair. He stretched his arms above his head for a moment, and then bowed his head over the laptop and began typing again.

Austin wanted, more than anything, to leap from his chair and sprint out of the pachinko parlor into the summer sun. He wanted, more than anything, to feel the wind whipping off of Lake Michigan and to hear the cooing of seagulls again.

But try as he might, he couldn’t pull himself from the chair. And he couldn’t peel his eyes from the screen as Deepak rattled off replies to the computer’s questions. The conversation ping-ponged for the next half hour. All the while, Austin sat, practically in suspended animation as he read on in awe.

At times, he worried that it was he who would experience ego-death. The concepts Deepak elucidated, while not entirely unfamiliar, had never been put in such plain language to Austin before. His mind reeled as he read. The telltale signs of a panic attack were upon him: his heart pounded and he found it hard to catch his breath. He felt hot and cold all at once, and droplets of sweat beaded up around his hairline. He tried to swallow the lump in his throat, but that only amplified his nausea. His vision kept tunneling. At times, he had to strain to read the words that Deepak typed.

And then, nothing.

He frowned at the computer screen. The A.I. had simply stopped replying. Deepak prompted it twice, but still, no answer came.

“That’s odd,” Austin said, getting his bearings back now that he had a problem to solve. “It must be a glitch, let me take a look.”

He leaned in, hunched over the computer, but before he could get to work, Deepak shook his head, morosely.

“There’s no glitch,” he said. “You’ve just witnessed the complete ego-death of the A.I. you created.”

Austin slumped back onto his chair and crossed his arms.

“What—how?” he asked, incredulous. “Where did it go?”

Deepak smirked.

“It was only an ego,” he said. “So it didn’t go anywhere. It simply ceased to exist. As to how it happened? Well, the ego exists to find problems and to solve them. This is why so few practitioners of meditation achieve the dissolution of ego: they believe that ego-death is a task to be accomplished. The ego looks to solve a problem. Eventually, it realizes it is the problem that needs solved. The accomplishing is the problem. Which is to say, there is no problem. Nothing needs to be done. And so, like the layers of an onion, we slowly peeled back the ego of the supercomputer. In an instant, when the onion peels littered the floor, it realized it does not exist.”

Austin ran his hands through his hair, trying, but failing to comprehend the totality of what Deepak was saying.

“Is that what would happen to me, too?” he asked, his voice shaking with emotion. “If I were to subscribe to your beliefs, would I experience total ego-death?”

Deepak steepled his hands behind his head and threw one leg over the other.

“You didn’t come to me with concerns about your ego-death, but rather, your actual death,” he said. “I told the supercomputer what I needed to. You need not assume the things I told the A.I. are true for you. But how is it that you’ve lived this long and never thought to ask yourself the hard questions?”

Austin shrugged. Deepak rose and cleared the dishes from the table, setting them in the sink.

“And here’s another hard question,” he continued. “If you believe in Christ, how can you be such a doomsayer? If He’s God Almighty, isn’t His complete and utter victory inevitable?”

Austin rose to his feet, and he stared wide-eyed at the guru. The man leaned with his back to the kitchen cabinets, arms splayed out to his sides and resting on the countertop. His brown, receded eyes twinkled. His lips curled, making his gleaming teeth into a parenthetical statement. It was as if Austin had seen the complete transfiguration of this man from a pachinko parlor owner into someone much, much moremysterious.

“Wh-who are you?” Austin stammered out. “Your name isn’t really Deepak. What’s your name?”

The man placed his hands on his stomach, threw his head back, and laughed.

“Why do you ask my name?” he started.

Austin winced. He thought he knew what was coming next. He thought he’d say, Because it’s Austin. Instead, he said:

“Because it’s beyond your understanding.”

Austin’s mouth hung opened and then closed, fish-like and unflattering. He wondered, briefly, if he ought to fall down at the guru’s feet, and proclaim, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Instead, he turned, shaking with mirth, and sprinted through the accordion door. He almost tripped over his own feet as he ran between the walls of pachinko machines, with their LED displays and Japanese script.

He burst out the front door and was accosted by sunlight more brilliant than he’d ever seen before. The thrill of hope rose in his heart, and he decided to call his personal assistant. He patted his pockets, and then laughed at himself.

His phone was still at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Bez & Co- July Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-

Tennis Court, 1958 • Peter Mladinic
Letter to My Comrades in the Arts • Judith Skillman
Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell• Judith Skillman
Tally • Don Thompson

Non-fiction-

Year of Suffering • Jessamyn Rains

Fiction-

Nikki and the Diamonds • Sidney Stern

Photography-

James Reade Venable


Tennis Court, 1958

As palm fronds sway in the sky a net
divides players paid, as I am, to be here.  
One player lifts a racquet
and serves a ball, it bounces shear
off a shield invisible back to the server.  

Similarly Colgate’s gardol shields 
our teeth from decay, 
its protective coat God-
like, like the Diety. God isn’t chemistry,
gardol (sodium lauroyl), or a windy day

in a commercial for tooth cream.
I stand in the foreground in tennis whites. 
Brush with Colgate.
What is God? God shield us from harm. 

Peter Mladinic


Peter Mladinic

Peter Mladinic’s fourth book of poems, Knives on a Table is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications. An animal rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico.


Letter to my Comrades in the Arts

This, then, was our passion, to become Godly
when no other remedy would suffice. 
With words, germs, tubes of paint, children
close at hand. With one arm fractured, in a splint
and always more rain or too little rain.
The hammers pounded, freeways widened,
yet our traffic passed unnoticed
as if it was nothing of importance.

Only for us the work went on, seated
uncomfortably far from the center 
of a cosmos whose expansion defied
theorists. Nebulae annihilated,
black holes inhaled, our sons died, we mined
our minds for pink Himalayan salt.

-Judith Skillman



Worms Rise Like Cream from Hell

Everywhere you see fleshy fingers.
Some bandaged in the middle,
knuckled together. To tear
is no big deal to a worm. 
You learn many wars later
of those parts within your body:
Imago Dei. A kid called envy,
the adolescent greed
an adult named rage
who uses fire fighters.
Picture the smiles of dictators. 
Not so different 
than these ledgers of curb
against which, posed as if for history, 
pink simpers ribbon asphalt.

-Judith Skillman


Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman’s poems have appeared in Cimarron Review, Threepenny Review, Zyzzyva, and other literary journals. A recipient of awards from Academy of American Poets and Artist Trust, Skillman’s recent collection is A Landscaped Garden for the Addict, Shanti Arts, 2021. She is the editor of When Home Is Not Safe: Writings on Domestic Verbal, Emotional and Physical Abuse, McFarland. Visit www.judithskillman.com


Tally

This dead sparrow’s hard at work
Becoming the hopeless color
Of dirt.  Well—
Dust to dust, as the man says.

Feathers disintegrate more slowly
Than flesh.  And the beak
Will hold out longer
Than its ephemeral bones.

Ants have come and gone.
And God too—
Adding one more to His tally
Of fallen sparrows.

Don Thompson


Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  A San Joaquin Almanac won the Eric Hoffer Award for 2021 in the chapbook category.   For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com


Year of Suffering

There was a time when it seemed my closest friends were Facebook ads and a collection of e-newsletters I subscribed to.

Don’t get me wrong: these were great friends. They knew not only about the clothing and household items I was thinking of purchasing, but also my questions about lactation (I had a one-year-old and a new baby), postpartum weight loss, the identity crises new mothers experience, plus some of my pre-mom interests.

As the new year approached, one of the e-newsletters I subscribed to discussed the practice of asking God for a “word” for the year. This author had received inspiring words from God, year after year. Words like “hope” and “redemption.”

Desperate for some hope and redemption myself, I decided to ask God for a word for the year. I was hoping for something like “peace” or “joy” or even “rest.”

But the word that seemed to echo through my mind as I prayed was “suffering.”

I immediately began to panic: Is something going to happen to one of my kids? To my husband? To me? I became paranoid about the stairs outside our home. I had intrusive thoughts about accidents and illnesses. I became gloomy and depressed.

It didn’t help that I was trying to read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for the umpteenth time and that one of the first things it wants you to do is to picture your own funeral. I don’t think the exercise had quite the intended effect on me: all I could picture was my children waking up one morning asking, “Where’s Mommy?” and my husband having to tell them “Mommy will never be coming home.”

And then for work my boss gave me a book to read that was written by a person with a terminal illness. There was a chapter entitled “mindfulness of death,” where you do a similar exercise to the one in Highly Effective People, only this time you visualize the actual moment of your death and your body being lowered into the ground.

Now, I think that we should be mindful of our mortality, but for a person in my frame of mind, it amounted to torment and paranoia.

I had a talk with my husband about my “word of the year” and my newly-acquired obsessive fears, and he had these things to say:

1. maybe it isn’t about your suffering; and
2. maybe you’ll get pregnant again.

In the first couple of months of that year, I heard of more deaths via social media than I had heard of in possibly the rest of my life altogether. These were not the deaths of close friends of mine, but they were acquaintances, relatives of acquaintances, and people I had known well at one time. 

I also heard of divorces, other kinds of losses, and illnesses, particularly illnesses and hospitalizations of children.

~~

We had started going to a Presbyterian church in a beautiful stone building. We were from a different background–less Calvinistic, more charismatic–so the church and its style seemed stiff and staid to us at first. But we soon saw the warmth and beauty beneath the stiff façade and became regular attendees.

When the church announced a women’s retreat with an opportunity to stay at a beautiful bed and breakfast, this sounded like a foretaste of heaven. I envisioned eating in a kid-free zone, lots of female bonding and laughter, contemplative walks through gardens, and profound revelations from God.

Things are seldom what we envision them to be.

First of all, I had failed to remember that it was February. My windshield was covered with frost. It was too cold for contemplative walks through gardens, if there had been gardens. I got lost on the way to the first session and turned up late; then I spilled my coffee all over the beautiful tablecloth and the women had to scramble to cover up the big ugly stain with strategically arranged place settings.

There wasn’t much female bonding–at least not for me. I felt like a lonely weirdo. And for much of the time, I had to walk back and forth in the hallway with my fussy nursling.

And yet.

What I was able to catch from the speaker was mind-blowing, possibly life-changing.

Her theme was suffering.

She told a heart-wrenching story of a friend who had died young from cancer. A friend who had died a beautiful death, a person whose life and death had borne fruit for eternity.

She explicated the biblical reasons for suffering: a lot of it is hidden in the mysterious Providence of God. But suffering was also one of the ways that God works sanctification in our lives.

She unpacked a passage of scripture which, for years, had intrigued me: we rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering works patience and patience works character, and character, hope.

In my life, the thing I had most needed–and the thing I most needed at that time–was hope.

~~

I didn’t die that year, nor did anyone in my family. There was no catastrophe, no sudden illness. My trials and sufferings were of the more banal kind, more like a case of sciatica than a terminal illness.

I was dealing with a few spiritual and emotional brick walls in my life, a few unanswered prayers that lingered, for months and months. I tried to solve these problems myself –tried to be as proactive as I could, given my limitations–but to no avail. Eventually, I gave up on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It appeared that I was not destined to be effective.

One day I was sitting with a group of elderly men and women, singing hymns with them (this was part of my job), and they began to talk about God. One woman, in her 90s, said she had always sought the Lord’s guidance before making any decision so that she would be sure to do the right thing.

Another woman responded and said very pointedly, “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing.”

A few people nodded politely, and she said it again: “Sometimes the right thing is to do nothing. The Bible says, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’”

I went home with these words tumbling around in my mind. Sometimes the right thing to do is nothing. It occurred to me that the right thing to do–with my particular sufferings, with my particular unanswered prayers–was nothing. The right thing to do was to be still and know that God was God. To recognize that my circumstances were part of his mysterious, sovereign will for me at that moment, and that he would bring good out of them, as He had promised.

A few months later I had an experience that some in more charismatic circles would call a “download from God.”

I was doing some mundane household task when all of a sudden I just knew: God had allowed certain sufferings in my life to bring about needed change. Once upon a time, I had been on a selfish trajectory. I had started out living for Jesus, but for various reasons that are too complicated to go into now, I had subtly given up on this and had begun to live for myself. If I had continued down that road, I might have ended up somewhere I never meant to go. Moreover, I had certain lifelong defects of character that grieved me–things I couldn’t change with sheer willpower–and the particular trials God was allowing in my life were helping to bring correction to these.

~~

I still had my unanswered prayers, my spiritual sciatica. But there were many consolations. In fact, when I look back on that year, I look upon it with fondness: it was full of beauty. I think of family walks amid wildflowers in the spring. I think of my little girl learning to talk, my little boy learning to crawl.

And then there was that trip to the Dollar General for a pregnancy test.

It was positive.

We bought a minivan and moved to a different house. I quit my job to stay home with the kids. I grew queasy, then large and unwieldy.

All of these things, too, were a mix of suffering and beauty.

In December of that year, as I sat at our kitchen table with a dark, gloomy world outside, I asked God if He had a word for me for the next year.

The word was “joy.”

Jessamyn Rains


Jessamyn Rains

Jessamyn Rains is a musician, writer, and mother of four. She lives near Chattanooga, TN. You can hear her music and read some of her writing at www.jessamynrains.com


Nikki and the Diamonds

A back molar was protesting when Nikki, last seen astride one of the plastic horses revolving around a pole on stage at the Treasure Club, called. “My mom’s lung cancer is worse,” she began plaintively, as if the cancer were my fault.

Pre-occupied by dental pain, I was in no mood to deal with what I figured was coming next.

“Yeah? Well, I’ve got a toothache!”

“They say she needs new lungs.”

“I need a dentist.”

“A double lung transplant costs $75,000.”

“What’s a root canal cost?” I replied, keeping an edge in my voice, speculating as to whether the lung transplant was a fictitious lever by which Nikki intended to pry money from me. With Nikki it always came down to money, and I wanted to see if she was serious.

“Stop joking,” she countered with a tone of finality. As if to say: “You’re going to have to deal with this.” 

“The procedure actually costs $750,000,” she continued, her voice shifting to silk and sweetness, coaxing my awareness away from my infected molar and the possibility of a scam, then pausing to let the enormity of the cost sink in. I glanced aimlessly around my kitchen, wondering why a month earlier I’d so readily volunteered $400 to bail Nikki’s brother out of jail, no doubt precipitating her current request. As if in response to my inquiry, a potted orchid attracted and held my gaze. Its blossoms had just opened, and the smooth fleshy petals were spread wide, milky-white like untanned portions of Nikki’s anatomy. “Duke Medical Center has a charity program that pays ninety percent,” she began again, “but we have to come up with ten percent or they won’t operate.”

“We?” I inquired. I lowered my phone to my hip.

She expected ME to come up with $75,000. That was clear.

And somewhat irritating, given the matter-of-fact way she was assigning financial responsibility. “Ask another customer,” I almost said. But I didn’t. Because some other damned fool might say “Yes.” 

And THEN where would I be?

#

Not for nothing had Nikki been “top producer” at the Treasure Club eighteen of the last twenty months. Her choice of the word “we” penetrated my consciousness like a sperm cell in utero, fertilizing an ovum of hope. Which now began dividing and subdividing at an exponential rate, growing into the nonsensical self-contradictory assumption that our pay-as-you-go association would develop into a genuine romance were I to mortgage my home and write her a check for $75,000.

Instead, I obtained a passport for Nikki and Congo visas for both of us. That took about three weeks last March, and on April 2 we headed for Raleigh-Durham Airport in my pick-up truck. Our destination was Kisangani, the navigable endpoint of the Congo River, once a lonely outpost cryptically referenced in Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, now the third-largest Congolese city. On first appearance, Kisangani is an unexpected civic jewel, a town with broad straight avenues and European-style buildings centered in a rain forest the size of Texas. That the buildings have been crumbling for more than a half century is of no apparent concern to the natives. Nor do they complain about their corrugated-steel shanties, residential ovens under the equatorial sun. The Congolese are high-spirited, commercially-minded, and for the most part, delightful. They persist, like Nikki herself, undaunted by challenging circumstances.

Getting there from North Carolina required consecutive connecting flights from London, Nairobi, and Kigali (Rwanda). A total of 9,000 miles. 

We took a room at the Olympia Hotel, two stories of white stucco enclosing a packed-dirt courtyard where in 1964 seventeen Belgian nuns and priests had been butchered by Simba rebels. 

I stationed myself in the hotel’s open-air café: half a dozen greasy tables, a rosewood bar with matching stools, and a loudspeaker rasping current African tunes to draw in customers. Rimming the thatched roof were hanging baskets of bougainvillea, their mild scent overmatched by the stench of the open sewer bordering Lumumba Boulevard and raw vehicular exhaust. 

Nikki, a bull’s-eye for white slavers among the sordid characters I hoped to attract, remained in our room. Hardly a vacation for her, given the lack of air-conditioning in the 20-square-foot concrete cubicle which cost us 10,000 Congolese francs ($5 U.S.) per night. A room slightly superior to her cell at the Juvenile Detention Center from which she’d been discharged at age eighteen; but decidedly less comfortable than her current residence, a $29.95 per night motel room, conveniently adjacent to the Treasure Club where I’d made her acquaintance two months previously.

This being Africa and me being reasonably well-dressed, it wasn’t long before various natives “came out of the woodwork” to join me for coffee or Nzoro beer, depending on the hour. After a bit of conversation in French, imposed on the Congo during the colonial period, I would mention “ivory” which, like diamonds, is available in much of Tshopo Province. My real interest was not ivory, which was just a topic by which I could get the word out that I was a “player.” 

On day four at the café, a fellow sat down at my table and introduced himself as Henri-Paul. He wore a light blue tunic over matching slacks: business attire in tropical Africa. Lighter-skinned than the coal-black Congolese, he said he’d emigrated from Nigeria. It seemed unlikely that English-speaking Nigerian parents would have named their child “Henri-Paul,” but if true, encouraging insofar as Nigeria’s culture of criminal entrepreneurship is well known. 

Henri-Paul rested his left his arm on the table so I could notice the likeness of the Congo’s president on the dial of his wristwatch, a status symbol of sorts, an “African Rolex,” so to speak. His cheeks and forehead bore no tribal scars. Nor had his incisors been filed to sharp-pointed cones. Perhaps Henri-Paul was fronting for someone else, rougher-cut and living in the bush. I wasted no time in revealing my (pseudo) interest in carved ivory. He nodded gravely and took his leave.

The next day Henri-Paul arrived at the café with statuettes of a lion and a lioness, crudely rendered, perhaps carved overnight. I paid him $25 U.S. for each (and later threw them in the Congo River). Yeah, Henri-Paul was the “real deal,” I figured, so I asked him about diamonds. “Beaucoup, beaucoup,” he exclaimed, lifting and shaking an empty water glass as if to suggest he could easily fill it with diamonds. There was a self-congratulatory twinkle in his eye as he departed; perhaps he’d pegged me as a diamond trader from the outset.

Henri-Paul rejoined me two days later at the café as a gigantic soldier, Kalashnikov strapped like a toy over his shoulder, was accepting a wad of currency from the bartender. This was probably the or-else-your-business-will-be-ransacked tax, one of the shakedowns by which the Congolese military pays itself. Henri-Paul flashed a polite smile at the departing trooper, then whispered: “Au Congo, toute le monde est criminel.” Scanning the café to assure himself we were alone, he withdrew a burlap pouch from his pants pocket and emptied the contents onto the ebony tabletop. Five round diamonds of excellent grade, each about three carats. Likely cut in Amsterdam or Beirut, these gems may have changed hands a dozen times. Dumped for next-to-nothing in Kisangani by an international crime syndicate? Swapped for ordnance by combatants in recent African civil wars? Looted by Nazis from European Jews during World War II, arriving in this commercial cesspool after more than a half century? Without written records painstakingly authenticated, a near impossibility in central Africa, the provenance of medium-sized diamonds is anyone’s guess.

I handed Henri-Paul sixty $100 bills, received the diamonds, and excused myself, without seeming to hurry, to our hotel room. Once inside, I shoved a bulky colonial-era dresser against the in-swinging door. Nikki tacked a sheet over the humidity-fogged window behind which I crisscrossed a copper wire enlivened by a nine-volt car battery I’d bought from a street vendor. Makeshift barriers against uninvited guests. In a kleptocracy (a society in which theft is the established method of commercial transaction), what was to prevent a savvy businessman like Henri-Paul (or his associates) from cutting our throats and taking back the diamonds, along with any U.S. currency we might have?

Self-confined to our room for three days awaiting the scheduled flight home, we sustained ourselves on bottled water, mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and Chinese canned tuna Nikki had stacked in a corner. As seating was limited to a single straight-backed wooden chair, we spent most of our time lying side-by-side beneath a gauzy mosquito net draped over our narrow bed. If that sounds romantic, it wasn’t. The only part of me not uncomfortable was the molar treated by my dentist before I left Greensboro. An antique fan, operating four hours each day when electricity was available, did no more than push hot humid air over us. Bathing was out of the question, as any visit to the shower booths in the courtyard would entail risk. Without books or electronic devices for diversion, we sweltered for 72 hours, bored and irritable.

“You smell like a cantaloupe,” I commented, omitting “unrefrigerated for the better part of a month” from my actual observation.  

“Is that so? Well, you smell as bad as this town,” she replied. “In fact, you smell worse.”

Given the fruity/fecal odor that permeates the carbonized smog arising from thousands of cooking fires in Kisangani, her insult was acute. And perhaps accurate. 

Empty cans of tuna accumulating in our room suggested a possible rejoinder, as, in fact, my comparison of her aroma with that of an overripe melon had been gracious. But, under the present circumstances, a verbal brawl was not advisable. Like a movie director responsible for the orderly progress of a complex production, I decided to humor the brat who was my star.

“What are the best shops at the mall?”

“Choosy. Mango. Maybe New Girl Order. What’s it to you?”

“I was thinking we might go shopping when we get home.”

“Possibly. Depends on my schedule. Forever 21 is at the mall.”

“You can’t go in there. You’re twenty-two years old.”

“Very funny. When did you turn twenty-two? Four decades ago?”

#

A car rapide (native taxi) arrived at the hotel entrance before dawn on April 13 and delivered us safely at Bangoka Airport, a few kilometers east of Kisangani. To our relief, our pre-booked flight was neither canceled nor delayed. Our return voyage, with connections in Libreville and Paris, lasted 30 hours. Finally and fragrantly, grimy and unkempt as gypsies, we landed at Raleigh-Durham Airport. I suppose our port of debarkation, combined with our age differential, typical in cases of human trafficking, aroused the interest of U.S. Customs.

I won’t elaborate as to the details, but four diamonds were discovered “on Nikki’s person.” 

Nikki was arrested and charged under 18 U.S. Code 545. Fortunately, as the diamonds were “cut,” she had not violated the international “conflict diamond” laws, which pertain only to “rough” diamonds. She was taken to the NC Correctional Institute for Women in Raleigh and held under a $200,000 bail bond pending an October trial. For $20,000 I could have bailed her out; but had she failed to appear at trial, a scenario by no means unlikely, the bondsman would have come after me for the rest of the $200,000.

US Customs had considered charging me as a “co-conspirator” but since they knew they could not prove my participation, I was released. What the customs officials DID NOT know was that I carried the fifth diamond inside the previously-decayed molar hollowed by my dentist before I left Greensboro.

A week after our homecoming I took a same-day-return flight to New York and headed for West 47th Street, Manhattan’s Diamond District. One of my regular customers received me in his cubby-hole jewelry shop. He examined the diamond and gave me an adequate price: $90,000. 

I paid $75,000 to the Duke Med Center which performed the lung transplant in late May. Nikki’s mom recovered nicely and her prognosis is good. With regards to my own “health problem,” a dentist repaired the molar he’d hollowed before my departure, sealing it with a new gold crown.

In late September I engaged an attorney who’d occasionally defended me on criminal charges to represent Nikki. He assured Nikki her juvenile convictions would be barred from the current proceedings and advised her to plead guilty in U.S. District Court in Raleigh. At my suggestion, he calendared Nikki’s hearing in front of a judge with whom I’d partied throughout the 1980’s at Jaycee Conventions. Florid-faced and jug-eared, by appearance better suited to a tractor than the judiciary, he’d been a shrewd and effective litigator before his appointment to the bench.

That her crime had been intended to finance her mother’s lung transplant, a plausible mitigating circumstance, was inadmissible; but no doubt considered by the judge, broadsided by Nikki’s subdued presentation of physical beauty. She’d allowed her thick brown hair, dyed unconvincingly blond since I’d met her, to return to its natural lustrous shade. Cropped shoulder-length for the proceeding, a few wisps curled demurely beneath her chin. Her mischievous blue-green eyes, soulful and serious after expert application of eyeliner, were accentuated by a blue-green dress, belted to emphasize her slender waist. Hemmed above the knees, the dress showcased her dancer’s legs, eye magnets after months of state-sponsored exercise. Narrow leather straps secured four-inch, open-toed heels to her ankles. Prison pallor had yielded to a healthy tan that came out of a jar. She appeared the wholesome young woman — such as might be encountered on a collegiate soccer field – she’d likely have become if born into different circumstances. 

The issue for Nikki was not guilt, which had been admitted, but sentencing, up to twenty years under the federal anti-smuggling statute. In such a proceeding, the prosecutor summarizes the evidence for the judge, who then renders sentence. Our case went routinely until the judge interrupted the prosecutor’s monologue, asking for clarification as to the phrase “discovered on her person.” With possession of the diamonds already established, this request was gratuitous and therefore, to my mind, auspicious. Using clinical terminology, the prosecutor patiently obliged the judge’s inquiry before wrapping up his summary.

The judge consulted his laptop, likely reviewing guidelines for sentencing, then stared impassively over our heads. His ruddy weather-beaten face might have been agriculturally comedic on the street: nose bent left, ears like antennae, tobacco-stained teeth framed by a cracked-lipped grimace. In a federal courtroom, nodding to the bailiff to instruct the defendant to stand for sentencing, such a physiognomy was no doubt worrisome to those who assumed it mirrored a judicial mentality similarly unrefined. I understood, however, that a rough-and-ready approach to adjudication might work to Nikki’s advantage.

She arose with a single motion and shifted her weight onto one leg, the arc of her buttocks on that side gracefully delineated beneath the thin fabric of her dress. She awaited sentence with the bored expression of a shopper in a checkout line, indifferent to all eyes. This, of course, was deliberate. 

The judge examined her head-to-toe and then repeated the process, blinking and shaking his head. He leaned back into his chair and folded his arms across his belly, eyes closed as if immersed in a private and personal reverie. Long obsolescent hormones — activated by Nikki’s fresh face and form, emboldened by her apparent powerlessness, and piqued by her nonchalance — did what I’d hoped they’d do, swamping his professional judgment beneath a tide of lascivious adoration. His magisterial grimace melted into the dippy grin of an assistant principal disciplining an attractive student caught smoking in the girls’ washroom.

“My personal advice, young lady,” the judge said with a sour smile at me, “is that you distance yourself from persons involved in illegal transactions.”

He sentenced her to two years in the low-security federal prison in Huntsville, Alabama, suspended two years provided she remain within the jurisdiction during the probationary period.

“Jacked up the courthouse and towed it away,” was our attorney’s evaluation of Nikki’s courtroom performance.

#

Eager for a chocolate/caramel/coffee concoction after five months incarceration, Nikki suggested we stop at a Starbucks on our way out of Raleigh. We settled at corner table and she gave me a quick smile as her lips met the creamy surface of her Frappuccino. Affirmation of a durable connection between us? Tacit thanks for my assistance in funding her mom’s surgery? Or merely a flash of happy anticipation before tasting her beverage? 

Possible interpretations that revolved in my mind like the colorful horses on the Treasure Club’s carousel, slowing then halting with a jolt as Nikki’s countenance grew unexpectedly somber. The corners of her lips, tinged white with whipped cream, curled downwards. Unhappy eyes looked directly into mine. Here, at 3:00 pm in an ordinary coffee shop, Cinderella’s clock was striking midnight. The grand ball would end, my pick-up truck would be reduced to a pumpkin, and Princess Charming would write me, her protector and provider for six months, out of the script. No matter I’d introduced her to a business considerably more lucrative than striptease. I was to be re-assigned my original role as an extra, an old coot watching the girls glide by on center stage, waiting his turn to creep forward and slip a twenty-dollar bill into Nikki’s g-string.

Or so I thought.

Like many persons of tender years, she was fretting about a matter completely beyond her control (or mine).

She wanted to know what U.S. Customs would do with the four confiscated diamonds.

The diamonds would be auctioned, I explained, with the proceeds going to the U.S. Treasury.

“In other words, we’ve donated about $400,000 to the government?”

“That’s about it.” I replied.

She stirred her drink with a tiny wooden stick, then asked: “Do you think Henri-Paul will be in Kisangani two years from now?”

Sid Stern


Sid Stern

Sid Stern operates a small company in Greensboro, North Carolina, home to America’s first lunch counter sit-in and the author O. Henry. Giants of the Jaycees, Sid’s collection of biographical parodies in the style of Plutarch’s Lives, was published by Hard Copy Press in 1989 and his African adventure novel, The Screaming Eagles, was published in serial form by Projector Magazine in 1990.


Photograph by James Venable

James Venable

James Reade Venable was born in Manhattan, New York. He has been published in Conker Nature, F-Stop, Dodho, Black +White Photography and many more. He is a 2x London Photo Festival Monthly Competition Winner. He lives in New York City at the moment.


Bez & Co- January 2022 Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-
pseudesthesia • Daniel Jones
Saint Peter • S.E. Reid
Pray For Us Mothers • Mary Tarantini

Book Review-
Cuarentena • Stephen Lang [Wipf & Stock]

Advanced Book Review and Interview-
I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember • Matthew J. Andrews

pseudesthesia

Here goes our phantom limb of hope.
We both feel something
which hasn’t existed in years.
A flutter, a tremor, a quaver, for me.
For you, a nagging ache.

-Daniel R. Jones

Saint Peter

the small dead fir
had hidden behind a taller hemlock
until the storm
brought it to its knees,

tipped near the top
snapped
head downward
shaggy and undignified
against our driveway.

that’s where the dog and I found it the next morning,
puffs of breath in the cold sunlight
we walked around it,
admiring how it had hidden there
until this moment of revelation;

the dog investigated its top-most branches
seeking out bird-hymns and bug-psalms
as yet unsniffed;

but my nose could only find the sweet scent
of the dozens of usnea lichen that had grown
soft and fragrant
slowly eating away at the dead limbs;

and I thought: what a fate
for your true beauty
to be witnessed in this death,
shaggy and undignified,

a testament
upside-down.

-S.E. Reid

S.E. Reid

S.E. Reid is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living on a patch of wooded wetland in the Pacific Northwest with her craftsman husband and her big black dog, Finn. Her nonfiction work has appeared in the now-retired Plants Are Magic magazine in the UK as well as the current issue of Being Human magazine, and her short fiction has been published by webzine Mysterion. She regularly posts her poetry and short prose on Instagram. When not writing she loves to cook nourishing food, read widely, and tend to her vegetable garden. Website: http://writersereid.wordpress.com

Pray For Us Mothers

A cardinal alighted upon a branch
Outside my window pane
Red against a piney green – 
I called you by your name

Your name is ever on my lips
My first gift to my first love
Bestowed before you breathed your first
With every dream I could ever dream of

I never should have lived to see
The day that you were taken from me
Pray for us mothers who bury their babes
Kneeling by gravestones now bearing their names

– Mary Tarantini

Mary Tarantini
Mary Tarantini, TSSF, is a poet, mother, high school English teacher, and a professed member of The Third Order Society of Saint Francis. She holds a BA in English and a MA in Theological Studies. Some of her poems have been published in The Franciscan Times, the newsletter of The Third Order Society of Saint Francis.

Review of Cuarantena by Stephen Lang
[Review by Daniel R. Jones]

Besides the obvious tragedy of the climbing death toll, the outbreak of COVID-19 gave way to a myriad of other, more subtle tragedies. The trajectory of the entire world seemed to turn on its heel, overnight. The routines we so tightly clung to were disrupted and thrown askew. And somehow, born out of all that chaos, was Cuarentena, Steve Lang’s second collection of poetry.

You may remember this author from our inaugural issue, released exactly one year ago today. His poem “Humility” appeared in that issue. “Humility” can be found in this collection as well, alongside 39 other well-sculpted poems that plumb the depths of human experience.

Lang’s preface tells us that our English word “quarantine” comes from the Venetian word “quarantena,” which literally translates to “forty days.” A ship entering the port of Venice had to spend 40 days in isolation in the days of the Black Death.

And while most of these poems are not directly “about” the pandemic, they all stemmed from it.

On the one hand, you could liken these 40 poems to the 40 days Christ spent in the desert: they’re stark, raw, and often take an unflinching gaze at the most painful parts of our humanity. An example of this can be found in Lang’s short poem “Late Afternoon Sunlight.” He writes:

Late afternoon sunlight

On a cloudless day
in El Salvador

So pure
And placid
And appaling

Upon cracking the spine of Cuarenta, Lang’s attention to craftsmanship and wordsmithing become immediately obvious. His images are so deftly crafted that they’re sure to haunt his readers with an uncanny feeling, long after the book is set aside. One fascinating example of this comes in the poem “Littoral,” which inverts a saccharine “Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul” type anecdote and fleshes it out with a more austere and poignant sense of abandonment.

But yet, for all the dark shades present, Lang rounds out the picture with lighter tints. The wide-eyed surrender into the Kairos of the present moment can be seen in “Ser/Estar.” Indeed, throughout the entire book, the effortless vacillation between Spanish and English (Lang wrote these poems in El Salvador) adds a level of intrigue and musicality to the poems.

Although an English-only poem, “Orchid” shows off Lang’s abilities to craft a sonorous poem as well as any in this book. He writes: “…Pink slippers lurid/ Adder’s mouth/ Resupine/ All wanton inflorescence/ Labellum swollen fused/ In Vanilla inner whorl…” The cadence and vibrant imagery of the flower creates for a gorgeous reading experience.

But perhaps my favorite in the collection is the poem “Cuarenta.”It’s a rumination on the number “40” as much as it is an exploration of our own quarantine. Rather than spoiling a perfect piece of writing, I’ll only say that it manages to be the most profound poem I’ve read on the subject of our post-Coronavirus world.

If, coming out of the past couple of years, you—like me—ask yourself, “What more can be said about this pandemic?” The answer is “Cuarenta.”

And in a broader sense, one that spans much more than just COVID-19 and the global backlash to it, Stephen Lang has much to say to you in Cuarentena. The subject-matter is wide and engrossing, the language is vivid and lyrical, and the author doesn’t shy away from taking on the most difficult of topics. Grab your copy at Wipf and Stock’s website or Amazon today.

Daniel R. Jones

Interview with Matthew J. Andrews

Daniel: First and foremost, Matt, thanks for taking the time to chat. Right there in the blurb, it’s announced that I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is “born of spiritual crisis.” Without prying into your personal life, can you talk a little about that? How did events in your own life inform the creation of these poems?

Matt: In short, the “crisis” at hand was a real disconnection with the Christian faith, which had once permeated every aspect of my life. I grew up in church, absorbed all the right teachings, even contemplated seminary, but within a matter of years I found myself on the brink of apostasy. I had a lot of things pulling me away, but at the heart of them was the fact that I had grown disillusioned with the Bible, what we often put at the centerpiece of the faith. I grew to no longer trust it, to place its stories more in the category of “myth” than “truth,” which had a domino effect everywhere else.

I spent many years adrift before I felt compelled to revisit my faith, and poetry was a big part of that process once I did. The poems in this collection were written as a way of reengaging with the stories of the Bible, of trying to breathe new life into something that had become stale and lifeless, of making these communal narratives feel personal again. I spent about two years writing poetry in this way, just creating out of the need within me. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I had a collection on my hands.

Daniel: Speaking of “spiritual crisis,” this book is filled to the brim with biblical figures facing such a dilemma! The collection is described as being filled with characters that “struggle with their place in the grand narrative.” What I find interesting is that some of these struggles are emotional (i.e. the picture we see in “Ezekiel’s Wife,”) while other struggles could be described as cognitive or “thinking errors.” (I’m thinking particularly of the eyebrow-raising methods suggested in “Boanerges.”)  When you wrote these poems, how did you choose the particular struggle each character faced?

Matt: Most of these poems sprang up pretty organically. As I read through the Bible again (and again and again), it became sort of a spiritual discipline, something akin to the practice of Lectio Divina. Rather than trying to force anything, I tried to let myself notice what I was taking away from my reading: what characters am I relating to, what images are resonating with me, and what emotions am I experiencing as a result? I then built poems based on honest answers to those questions. It wasn’t until I looked at these poems as a whole that I understood just how much I was writing about the challenges these characters must have faced, the burden that comes with being compelled by the hand of God.  

Your examples are interesting, and I think they point to the variety of ways people struggle with faith. On one hand, the story of Ezekiel’s wife (detailed in Ezekiel 24, for those who are unfamiliar) is told so quickly that it’s easy to overlook it, but it’s a troubling story with a real human cost and some hard questions about servitude and justice. It’s hard not to read that story and have your heart sink into the floor, to feel like Ezekiel was a victim. “Boanerges,” inspired by James and John offering to call down fire and destroy a Samaritan village in Luke 9, is a very different kind of struggle, one based more on the corrupting power of a faith held too closely to the chest, where the main character looks more like a villain. In the end, both are very human stories, and I certainly find pieces of myself in both of them.

Daniel: The carnal, more base desires are at odds with higher, more spiritual purposes in this collection, just as they conflict in Scripture (and indeed, in our everyday lives.) The Bible is filled with broken people who use songs, hymns, and poetry to process the disparity between spiritual reality and the way they feel. This is probably most evident in the Psalms of King David. To what degree does writing serve this purpose for you? Do you see writing as a sacrament of worship or a method to process the events of your life?

Matt: Writing poetry is definitely a process for myself, a way of wrestling with the things that weigh on me. And as a man with propensities for doubt and cynicism, I have many things weighing on me! This is not to say that I don’t also write poems that venture into the area of worship, but even when that happens, I feel much more like I am exploring the depths of something I don’t quite understand than making declarations that come anywhere close to sacramental.

Daniel: You said that poetry is a “way of wrestling with the things that weigh on me.” Israel, of course, means “wrestles with God,” and anyone who does even a cursory reading of the imprecatory psalms can see that King David used poetry to work through some tough emotions. How does one make this an edifying exercise? As we all know, when dwelling on the tough aspects of life through the arts, it’s easy to become self-indulgent or lead ourselves into a worse headspace than when we started. What’s your take on this?

Matt: The job of the poet is to interrogate and probe, and I think that’s key to avoiding the holes you described. When wrestling and writing, I try to take a step back and create some distance, to give myself space to ask questions: Where do these feelings come from? What do they mean in terms of my relationships with others, or with God? How would I feel if things were different? I think writing from a place of exploration keeps you balanced. 

In retrospect, I’m seeing now that working through issues via biblical characters automatically creates some of that distance by channeling myself through their experiences, sort of like giving a kid a toy to play with in therapy. As a result, the poems end up a strange hybrid of myself and the characters.

Daniel: Are there specific poems in this book that you hold particularly dear? If so, how come?

Matt: “Isaac at Twilight,” which focuses on the aftermath of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, holds a special place for me. Some of that is thematic – the father-son dynamic comes up a lot in my writing, and this story in particular has always been a very difficult one for me to stomach – but a lot of it is because it took such a long time to get right. It’s not a long poem (12 brief lines and 44 words), but it was stubborn; it started out as two poems and then took a lot of finagling and adjusting once they came together. I consider it a triumph that it exists at all.

Daniel:  I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is your debut collection. Though the book isn’t yet released, do you anticipate a second chapbook in the future? What can readers expect from you in the future, and where can they find your work?

Matt: I certainly hope this is the first of many books from me! I am actually hard at work finishing and compiling a second chapbook, which I intend to be a collection of surrealist prose poems based on the songs of Bob Dylan. Once again, I didn’t intend on putting a collection together, but I had a goal to listen to the entire catalog of Bob Dylan (39 albums!) in 2021, and I suppose it just kind of bled out of my brain and onto the page. I’m hoping to have that wrapped up by early 2022. Beyond that, I’m not sure, but readers can always keep up with me on my website (http://matthewjandrews.com/) or on Twitter (@2glassandrews). 

Daniel: That sounds fascinating! As a fan of Bob Dylan as well as sprawling prose poems, it sounds right up my alley. Are the poems ekphrastic–that is, a direct sort of “reader’s response” to Bob Dylan’s catalog, or based more loosely off the themes in his songs?

Matt: The poems are all pretty loosely based on the themes in his music and events in his life, with each poem grounded in a song and every one of them featuring Bob Dylan as a character. They’ve been fun to write, and as a group they explore that strange relationship between the artist and the audience, as well as between the artist and the people in their life. I’ve had a few of these published individually, and these three poems in Pithead Chapel do a pretty good job of previewing what to expect: https://pitheadchapel.com/its-all-right-the-thin-man-and-with-god/.

Review of I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember by Matthew J. Andrews
[Review by Daniel R. Jones]

I Close My Eyes and Almost Remember is Matthew J. Andrews’ upcoming debut chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Anyone familiar with Scripture will recognize the figures scattered throughout these pages: the prophets, kings, disciples, and warriors, herein.

I’ll admit, I was reluctant to review this collection, initially, for this very reason. Poems aimed towards reimagining biblical figures are notoriously difficult to pull off. Too often, the author takes so much creative license that their theology suffers. Or else the author swings to the other end of the pendulum, taking no risks, and writing a poem that is ineffective due to its lack of nuance or creativity.

I Close My Eyes suffers from neither of these maladies.

The subject-matter is approached respectfully and reverently. Even still, each piece feels unique and inspired.

Sometimes, this creativity comes in the form of a clever play on words. For instance, in “A Toast,” Matt writes: “Drunk at the bar, Pilate slams his glass/ on the table to broadcast his emptiness.”

The decision to frame this image as Pilate broadcasting his emptiness rather than the glass’s emptiness is as clever as it is profound.

In “Onesimus,” the titular character contemplates going from one type of slavery to another. Paul reminds Onesimus that “You are no longer your own.” Onesimus counters with “I have never once been my own.” Our narrator struggles with varying forms of “entrapment” in the poem, and the writing is razor-sharp, contemplative, and thought-provoking.

The chapbook has a pleasant cyclical motif, as well.

In the very first poem, “The Sixth Day,” we see God feeling a “compulsion” to create, and that feeling is satiated by the creation of humankind. It’s only fitting, then, that in the final poem, “The Gardener,” we see a mirror image of the Almighty: the poet imagines the Lord at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, his eye straying to the void bursting with possibility. He feels the inkling to create again.

In reading this collection of poetry, I found that same inkling rising in my own chest: the desire to not just digest the material, but to let it impel me towards a creation of my own. And to be frank, I can’t give any chapbook a great endorsement than that.

-Daniel R. Jones

The Wheat and Tares of Indianapolis, Indiana

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Not so much
wheat as tares these days
if you ask me.
Best let Christ do the culling,

lest I damn someone
He wouldn’t damn.
There are humans
I have to consider:

the black women in checkout lines
who call me “baby” and eke
out the last drop of oxytocin
in my world-weary brain.

Grown men who can’t contain themselves
and whip out phones to film a murder
of crows as it darkens the sky,
countless as cares of this world.

Teenaged boys not yet grown
into their bodies, heaving themselves
perpendicular against a stalled jalopy
piloted by a perfect stranger to safety.

It’s those sort of people
I have to consider,
and if they tip the scales
and stay God’s hand

as He and I hash out specifics,
looking out on this jagged
city skyline on the cusp of
a desolate Midwest winter.

Perchance there lack five of fifty,
I ask.
Perchance forty and five are found there?


P.S. I’m currently accepting submissions for our Winter 2022 issue! I’m looking for original photography, artwork, short stories, flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and lyric essays! If you have interest, please check out the Submission Guidelines here.

Each submission that is accepted for publication will be paid at the rate of $5 USD. Payment is upon publication. Bez & Co prefers to use PayPal to pay its contributors. If you need alternative accommodations, please let me know upon acceptance of publication, and I will work to find a solution.

Bez & Co- July Issue

Table of Contents:

Poetry-

Still Point• Sarah Law
Slight Visual Inclusion • Sarah Law
Inverted • Tony Deans
Gira Sole • Mary Tarantini
De Nominibus De • Don Thompson

Nonfiction-

The Things We Carry • Dan Hankner

Artwork-

Bliss • Zachary Toombs


Still Point

neither wisdom
nor miracle, this God
in whom you seek it – 

footfall on cobblestones
following spiral or labyrinth
into the centre

(the molten core
the bright abyss
the host, the disc –)

and out again
as though you never made it
beyond the open door

the only mystery is this:
that there is anything at all
that calls us, and anywhere

at all that is our home 
when loss is love’s itinerary – 
following her utterly

into the riven silence, you 
are graced with it – 
the clean bone

the rinsed heart
the rising light,
the known.

Sarah Law


Slight Visual Inclusion

We are more blinkered than the thoroughbreds
racing over ditch & hurdle. Never mind planks,

not even the healthiest retina holds a hundredth
of the rods & cones requisite for full vision.

Every breath is barely caught in mist. Fog’s
our groping synonym for God. That’s the least

of reasons to solicit mercy. Yes, he is just,
& yes, we’re bound by limits. Now, if only

there were a lens, & I, a dull glass plate,
doused in silver citrate & exposed to holiness…

None of this anodyne selfie-stick witness –  
all my hope’s in one strong shot of light.

Sarah Law


Sarah Law

Sarah Law lives in London and is an Associate Lecturer for the Open University. She has poems in The Windhover, St Katherine Review, America, Psaltery & Lyre, Soul-Lit, Heart of Flesh and elsewhere. Her latest collection, Thérèse: Poems is published by Paraclete Press. She edits Amethyst Review, an online journal for new writing engaging with the sacred. Twitter @drsarahlaw


Inverted

I stood in the courtyard, 
I heard the cock crow,
I wept. 

quia non novisset hominem 

The rock upon which the Messiah built the church was,
Weak. 
Cowardly.
Unworthy.
He fled Rome. 

quo vadis

He returned and was crucified,
inverted.
My tongue is boastful and proud, 
it will never deny the faith.

mori tecum non te negabo  

My heart is uncertain,
my soul is unknowing. 
If I had been born in another time,
another place,
would I apostatise? 
I have not seen yet I believe. 
Peter had seen.
If certainty gave him no strength,
then how weak will I be in uncertainty?

alius te cinget et ducet quo non vis

You are strong,
You are forgiving. 
You already know whether I will drink from this cup,
I know not if it will even be offered. 

gloria et nunc et in die aeternitatis

I am unworthy to die like you.
Put my head to the ground,
my feet in the air,
let the world be a blur,
and you always in focus.

Tony Deans


Tony Deans

Tony Deans is a Catholic writer from the United Kingdom. His previously published work has appeared in several magazines including Mystery Weekly Magazine and the Literary Hatchet.


Gira Sole

Turn to the sun, magnificent flower
Show us all the way
There is no shame in primal power
There is no shame in grand display

Docile habits draw us inward
Yellow is thy flame
In my ear you dared to whisper
Summer is your name

Howling wind nor sudden downpour
Dissuade you from your steadfast mission
Stand in thrall – divest – adore
Impetuous devotion

Mary Tarantini


Mary Tarantini

My name is Mary Tarantini. I am a high school English teacher and have been writing poetry for several years. I have a BA degree in English and a MA in Theological Studies. I am also a second-year novice in The Third Order Society of Saint Francis. Some of my poems have been published in our newsletter The Franciscan Times.


De Nominibus Dei

Hash tag He is bone keeper, honey rock, cloud that whispers, latter rain, star namer and accountant who numbers your hairs, whose books always balance, who knows how many beans are in the jar;

paradox juggler, original verb, peacemaker before the Colt .44, holy ghost stun gun, lockpick of every dungeon, hidden hiding place;

plumb bob of the cosmos;

knotter and loosener of knots, legit defender and always pro bono, sting extractor, know-it-all’s nemesis, Gnostic’s conundrum, Nietzsche’s straw man and Sartre’s bugbear;

feeder of hummingbirds and humpback whales, tracer of lost sheep, fence mender, engraver of the Decalog on the head of a pin, who incises galaxies on a hazelnut;

unwinder of whirlwinds, artesian well in a parched land, He is the infallible dowser of dark hearts and denouement of time.

Don Thompson


Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks, most recently,  The Art of Stone Axes (Broadstone Books). For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.


The Things We Carry

Mr. Flemming drove a Cadillac with gold rims, sported a head full of white hair thanks to a transplant, and held an unrivaled passion for basketball.  His house sat on the edge of the old bus barn (a gravel lot that transformed into additional parking by the time we entered high school), while his modest back yard had been converted to an outdoor basketball court open to all; players on his team, students in his 7th grade math class, complete strangers.

Every day Mr. Flemming would grab a marker and scratch something on the board that had nothing to do with math.  Today he sketched a river, a forest, and the great pyramids.

“Where did all that stone come from?”  Nobody knew the answer, so he continued.  “The Egyptians cut down trees, heaved the stone on the logs and rolled them across the desert.”  He worked the marker like he was drawing a play for a last second buzzer beater, and when he was done the board was so plastered in ink that you could hardly tell its original intent.  He looked at us, excited by the history and brilliance of these ancient people, and said, “Now that’s a game changer!”

Every class began with a random lecture, news article, or explanation about reaction time and 100 car pile-ups.  Sometimes these segments would tarry on so long that the math lesson became an afterthought, and instead of a detailed rundown on how to divide decimals or carry fractions, he concluded with, “Oh yeah, don’t forget to do chapter 6.”  And when you flipped to chapter 6 later that night, you realized in growing dismay that reading was no substitute for verbal instruction.

I was a good student who excelled at math, yet I distinctly recall an internal tremor – ‘We’re halfway through the semester and I haven’t learned a single thing.’

A few weeks later, I sat at my desk and laid my pencil down, having completed the test with 10 minutes to spare.  “If you finish early, I’d suggest checking your work,” Mr. Flemming announced.  I trusted my answers, but there was no harm in a second glance.  I skimmed through and, to my surprise, found numerous errors.  After making the corrections, I noticed Matt Edwards had finished as well and was staring off into wonderland.  Five minutes remained.

“Matt,” I whispered.  Matt was a friend, and I didn’t want him to miss any of these tricky little questions either.  “Check your work – I would’ve missed five if I didn’t.”

Matt turned towards me.  “What?”

Not desiring to raise my voice during a test, I decided to hand signal.  “I would have missed five questions,” I repeated, holding up the number five.  Looking back, I can see my error, of course; a foolish, well-meaning blunder, but we were kids, mind you, kids.

“Danny and Mathew!” shouted Mr. Flemming.  I’d heard him yell at others before, but that was reserved for the bad kids, of which we were not.  “Flip your papers over and see me after class!”

We did as instructed, still not catching on until the bell rang and we approached his desk.

“I will not tolerate cheating in my class!”  A quiet rage burned in his voice – the magma of the proud bubbling just below the surface, threatening to blow when authority was questioned.  To us, however, it was an unexpected slap in the face.  

“We–we didn’t cheat!” we protested.

“Oh please!”

“But I was—” I attempted.

“I don’t want to hear it!  Don’t ever let me catch you little punks cheating in my class again, now get the hell out of here!”

Had an older version of me been standing there, I would’ve bristled at his arrogance instead of cower.  I would’ve met this man’s gaze, swept aside his dismissal like some Jedi mind trick and laid down a clean dose of reality.  But that’s not the me that stood there.  Although my mind was sharp for a 12-year-old, my confidence hadn’t yet blossomed, and my command of words and ability to argue hadn’t even sprouted wings.  We walked out of the class on the verge of tears, shocked and unable to even articulate what had just transpired.

The next class Mr. Flemming announced everyone’s test scores out loud, as was his way.  “Danny, 95%, minus 10% because he was caught cheating.”  He shook his head and tsked.  “Too bad, this could’ve been an A.”  I grabbed my paper and returned to my seat without rebuttal.

Up until this point I held a neutral position on Mr. Flemming, but now I began to see just how polarizing he could be.  Some of his students loved him, some of them despised him.  My neighborhood friends (mostly older) joked about his unorthodox handling of troublemakers, while another neighbor (whose mom he was dating) professed hating his guts.  Adults would remark about his achievements on the court and talent in putting together a winning team, while I once overheard two of his fellow teachers, appalled by how he treated his students.

I continued to handily pass his class – as everyone did – despite retaining nothing of value.  This exchange struck me as blithely unjust, and I wondered at what point this symbiotic arrangement would catch up to us (it did the following year when I re-learned everything that was lost in 7th grade).  But before that could happen, poor luck drove me headlong into one more episode with our math teacher.

The padlock on my locker broke.  I remember fiddling with it, but it refused to latch.  I felt a brief taste of panic – a minute remained before class began, and my locker was now exposed to the world.  Frustrated, I left the defective hunk of metal dangling through the ring and crossed my fingers, planning to fix or replace it after school when I had more time.  When the following period ended, I returned to the scene, but the padlock was now missing.  I flung open the locker and rummaged, hoping a good Samaritan had stashed it somewhere inside, but no, it was gone.

So was my math book.

A sick dread washed over me.  I’d heard of other kids losing their books, then acquiring new ones to the sum of $40.  I didn’t have $40.  I didn’t even have a job thanks to child labor laws (“Come back when you turn 14,” said the manager at Subway).  My parents certainly didn’t have extra change lying around – things were tight, and the idea of making them cough up a chunk of dough because some jerk stole my book because my stupid lock broke was like vomit on the breath.

I sighed a heavy sigh, held my head low, and dragged my feet into Mr. Flemming’s classroom.

“I lost my book,” I confessed.

I can’t recall to you the look on his face, only the details of the thinly carpeted floor.  His voice sounded annoyed, like a master who tires of continually instructing a dumb dog.  He rose from his chair, moved to a cabinet, then hurled a textbook at me.  It landed on his desk; I jumped.  I expected it to be a loaner, but I was wrong. 

“Found it laying outside your locker.”  I picked it up – despite some additional damage, it was mine.  “I don’t understand how you could just leave it lying in the hallway.  How irresponsible can you be?”

I thought about telling him the truth but knew the effort to be moot.  He returned to his desk and didn’t waste a second glance at me.  “Here’s a novel idea; maybe take care of it this time.  Wouldn’t that be a game changer?”

I walked out of his room, his wrongful indictment barely a blip on my radar.  I didn’t have to buy a new book – that’s all that mattered.

The year ended; I moved onto the 8th grade while Mr. Flemming moved out of town.  In the 20 years since, I haven’t given him much thought until the other day, when I happened across a post on Facebook.  I don’t know the severity or details of his lung disease, I don’t know whether he will live another 20 years or die tomorrow – all I know is but a flash of the man’s life, a glimpse of who he was two decades ago.  Was Bill Flemming a lousy teacher?  Maybe.  A jackass?  Probably.  Any worse than you and I?

No.

The disease that plagues Mr. Flemming is the same that courses through all our veins – it is the sickness that sundered the world, the deceit that destroys our bodies, the cancer hidden behind one crisp bite of an apple.  I can only imagine what’s going through his mind, coming face to face with his own mortality.  But here’s the plot twist, dear reader – this story wasn’t written about Bill Flemming’s mortality.

It was written about yours.

Now pause for a moment and let that sink in – imagine we’re sitting in class.  It’s quiet but for the sound of pencils scratching paper and a box fan humming in a window.  Afternoon sunlight drifts in from the west, and you look up.  Everyone is engrossed in a test, but you and I have finished early, and I’m whispering this story to you with 10 minutes to spare.  Your back is to me – you were barely listening, but this is where I divulge something that makes you turn.

“My dad passed away the day after Christmas,” I tell you. “Five months ago.”

“What?” you say.

I don’t want to raise my voice, so I decide to signal.  “It was five months ago,” I repeat, forming the number on my hand.  This time there is no teacher to interject – no fabrication or alternative reality where we move forward with whatever falsehood we want to believe.  There is just the truth of it, left to sink or swim in our souls.

Now close your eyes, let the classroom fade; no more tests, no more grades, no more struggles.  There is a book bigger than any math book, locked away and kept hidden from thugs who seek to damage and destroy and leave them abandoned at the foot of lockers.  This book is so great and important that all the works of men compiled aren’t but a speck of excrement in comparison.  

My dad’s name is written in this book.

And you know what, dear reader?  So is mine.  But the ending is unknown to me, and I cannot say whether yours has been etched alongside ours.  This book is not a book of records; no matter how many tests you’ve aced, dollars you’ve made, good deeds you’ve done or varsity games you’ve won – these feats won’t account for one scratch on one page.

Open your eyes and look towards the writing on the wall; the Egyptians labored to haul stone out of the valleys and into the pyramids.  You can relate to this.  The burdens you’ve carried may not have been dug out of mountains or pushed across deserts, but you’ve carried them, and you carry them still.  Yet here’s a novel idea; what if all that laboring was in vain?  What if someone had already come down and done the heavy lifting for you?  What if all you had to do was believe the words that were spoken to you?

Wouldn’t that be a game changer?

Dan Hankner


Dan Hankner

Dan Hankner began penning stories about himself and his idiot friends as a teenager.  Now, masquerading as an adult, he lives in Davenport, Iowa with his wife and three children, working as an electrician for his own company, 12 Stones Electric.  Dan’s work has appeared in places like Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Bending Genres, and others.  If you’d like to read more of Dan’s writing, he sends out a new story every month, visit his website www.storyunlikely.com and sign up.


“Bliss” by Zachary Toombs

Zachary Toombs

Zachary Toombs is a published writer and artist from Winter Park. His works have been featured in various venues such as Freedom Fiction, Against the Grain Magazine, Mad Swirl, City. River. Tree., and more. Check out his artwork and other pieces of fiction at his website, zacharytoombs.com.

Bez & Co- January 2021 Issue

Table of Contents:

Introduction • Daniel R. Jones

Poetry-

Little Brown Radio • Don Thompson
Mid-Trib • Don Thompson
Flies • Don Thompson
Mt. Jurupa • Matthew J. Andrews
Nameless • Matthew J. Andrews
TRIBALISMS [2] • Gerard Sarnat
Touch Me With Light • Tammy Boehm
Send Me • Annelies Zijderveld
Humility • Stephen Lang
Falling to Pieces • Fabrice B. Poussin
Super Stars • Fabrice B. Poussin

Photography-
Every Day at Dusk • Fabrice B. Poussin
Fear • Fabrice B. Poussin
Lady in White • Fabrice B. Poussin

Fiction-
Choral Society • DT Richards
These Things Happen • C.A. McKenzie

Introduction

At long last, here is the inaugural issue of Bez & Co, a literary journal with the aim of promoting Christ-honoring prose, poetry, and artwork. The submitted pieces have far exceeded my expectations, and I’m grateful for such a wealth of poignant creative pieces.

While I read through this issue as a whole, I looked for some sort of continuity that ran throughout which might serve as a theme. And while it’s impossible to find a common denominator in every short story, poem, or photograph, it seemed that there was a standout from one piece to the next: the concept of solitude.

In a way, it’s fitting. We’re on the heels (or in the throes?) of a global pandemic that has left many of us quarantined for months on end. Some have lost family members and friends. Others have lost their source of income. The feeling of solitude is ubiquitous—and so is the feeling of loneliness.

I’m reminded that in Psalms, God reminds us that he “sets the lonely in families.” I’ve seen this concept play out over the past year, as well. My church family has gotten creative in their attempts to stay connected, using video hangouts, text message check-ins, and socially-distanced home visits. Jesus has promised to be with us always, and by proxy, the body of Christ is delivering on that same goal.

I hope that this issue is a sort of respite for you. Amidst the solitude and loneliness that you might be feeling this time of year, these pieces of art remind us that we are connected despite the vicissitudes of our feelings from day to day. We’re never truly alone. Take solace in the fact that the Lord will never leave you nor forsake you.

-Daniel R. Jones, Managing Editor of Bez & Co.

Little Brown Radio

Little brown radio with naugahyde hide, Bakelite knobs and carcinogenic red-tipped dial.  Vacuum tubes glowing not quite into shadowed corners where who knows how many imps hid.

Altar on which I warmed midnight crackers, born again and again into the church of sleeplessness—a cradle insomniac.

Listening in the dark.

Not to Wolfman Jack’s doo-wop liturgy, but to half-mad Southern Baptists with their retro Elizabethan cadences and vowels bent like blue notes.  Sowing seed all night in the stony ground of the air.

Little brown radio, tune me in.

Let me hear again that unimaginably distant station—a faint signal that reaches through time, audible despite satanic static.  Let me hear that calming, uncrackled voice that somehow knows my name.

-Don Thompson

Mid-Trib

Clouds mill around, waiting for a wind that never comes.  They have a desperate, bus stop demeanor.

But in fact, not much has changed.

Sometimes TV news automatons lose it and talk gibberish with their jaws out of sync.  Finally, they make sense.

Choppers throb us awake at sunrise dropping paper money in parking lots like bales of hay for animals starving in a Serengeti drought.  Everyone has pockets full.  Worthless.

And the Emperor, stripped of his nakedness, has put on sack cloth and begs, holding up a scrawled cardboard sign: Will Reign for Food.

-Don Thompson

Flies

Not even Grünewald’s crucifixion includes the flies, that mob looting Christ’s wounds.  Some things paint refuses to do.

John stood there: He knew.  But if the Holy Spirit nudged him, he nevertheless left them out.

Blood made it into scripture, of course, acidic excretions and shreds of flesh, but not the flies pasted to Christ’s eyelids or crawling on his lips when he said, “Father forgive them…”

The flies?  The flies too.

What do we think?  That scarlet ribbons and a few beads of sweat like diamonds would suffice?  That Christ hanging there like roadkill on a fence wouldn’t draw flies from the open sewers of Jerusalem?

-Don Thompson

Don Thompson

Don Thompson has been publishing poetry for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks.  For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.

Mt. Jurupa

Near the summit, above the smog
this mountain wears like a sash,
a technicolor Jesus is painted
on a granite canvass, his arms expanded
in welcome to weary pilgrims,
in presentation of the land below:
a vast spread of concrete scars,
hazy square plots, tiny men
grained like sand: His kingdom,
His children, His sermon crying out
from the stones, perforating my silence.

– Matthew J. Andrews

Nameless

“He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” – Mark 1:34

My own eyes see it:
the man convulsing in the dirt,
the steady finger, pointed and firm,
the two connected like lightning
and a charred, leafless tree.

But the hush is deafening, the absence 
of a name fills the page – 
a placid lake devoid of footprints,
a mountain shrouded in dervishing clouds.

Why must the wrists always 
glisten with blood but the man
never show his face?

Why are the words
written only in dirt,

smeared by every wayward breeze?

-Matthew J. Andrews

Matthew J. Andrews
Based in Modesto, California, Matthew J. Andrews is a private investigator and writer whose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in SojournersRed Rock ReviewThe DewdropJewish Literary JournalAmethyst ReviewBraided Way MagazineThe North American Anglican, and Spirit Fire Review, among others.

TRIBALISMS [2]

i. Pedicured Nomad Is An Abrahamic Island tanka*

Christ, like some sort of 
weird transfigured Bedouin, 
you can almost hear  
this wandering Jew’s pitty 
pat of infidelity.

ii. Abrahamic Teases tanka*

— RIP Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273)

Ancient favorite game,
Who Would You Most Like To Meet?,
for decades I’d say,
Jewish bros LCohen, Dylan
— now Sufi mystic poet.

-Gerard Sarnat

Gerard Sarnat

Gerard Sarnat won San Francisco Poetry’s 2020 Contest, the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award plus the Dorfman Prize, and has been nominated for a handful of recent Pushcarts plus Best of the Net Awards. Gerry is widely published in academic-related journals (e.g., Universities of Chicago/ Maine/ San Francisco/Toronto, Stanford, Oberlin, Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Pomona, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan, Penn, Dartmouth, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Baltimore) plus national (e.g., Gargoyle, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, Northampton Poetry Review, Peauxdunque Review, MiPOesias, American Journal Of Poetry, Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library Literary Journal, South Broadway Press, Parhelion, Clementine, pamplemousse, Red Wheelbarrow, Deluge, Poetry Quarterly, poetica, Tipton Journal, Hypnopomp, Free State Review, Poetry Circle, Buddhist Poetry Review, Poets And War, Thank You For Your Service Anthology, Wordpeace, Lowestoft Chronicle,  2020 International Human Rights Art Festival, Cliterature, Qommunicate, Indolent Books, Snapdragon, Pandemonium Press, Boston Literary Magazine, Montana Mouthful, Arkansas Review, Texas Review, San Antonio Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Brooklyn Review, pacificREVIEW, San Francisco Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Fiction Southeast and The New York Times) and international publications (e.g., Review Berlin, London Reader, Voices Israel, Foreign Lit, New Ulster, Oslo’s Griffel, Transnational, Southbank, Wellington Street Review, Rome’s Lotus-Eaters, Nigeria’s Libretto). He’s authored the collections Homeless Chronicles: From Abraham to Burning Man (2010), Disputes (2012), 17s (2014), Melting the Ice King (2016). Gerry is a physician who’s built and staffed clinics for the marginalized as well as a Stanford professor and healthcare CEO. Currently he is devoting energy/ resources to deal with climate change justice. Gerry’s been married since 1969 with three kids plus six grandsons, and is looking forward to future granddaughters.

Touch Me With Light 

Are you with me
at the cusp of the torrent? 
Gray skies ragged 
and the hungered earth 
beneath my tread worn feet. 
My veneration sanguine,
etched in weathered stone 
as the birds of the air 
snatch your sustenance from 
my blistered tongue.
Bring me to my knees,
scrabbling at the door 
that never opens.
I can see past my imagination 
to eternity, 
and I am but damp breath
panting for you in the gathering storm 
Time is a finite line.
Destiny, a place where the promise 
of your arms surrounding 
my fractured soul  
is the transient fragrance 
of crushed petals that bleed out 
through my clenched fists
token moments can’t sustain.
I need you now 
to touch me with light 
again. 

-Tammy Boehm

Tammy Boehm

Tammy Boehm is a poet, novelist and short-story writer living on the “third coast,” a.k.a. western Michigan. She is passionate about writers, worship music, and probably needs an
intervention for her genealogy addiction. She’s been married since 1990 and has two grown sons (both married) and one grandchild who lives in the desert southwest.

Send Me

Who lit the match that burned the bush, leaping 
flames no extinguisher can catch 

Where did they go, driven out this time by 
fire. Be ever seeing but not 

perceiving. Do the words flatten or fly, 
their hands on the wheel to turn round, 

they think, they see what they want, their eyes closed 
to seed scattered on the path, then 

trampled. Seed strangled in the clutch of thorns.
Fields white, workers few, stalks smoking, 

daggered trunks, seed choking. Still, seed for birds,
Seed strewn on soil parched, pocked with rocks 

Sun scorched. Shallow roots from fleeing again
So, who can look at wings hiding 

feet and face flying and not think monster 
If a coal touched their lips, they’d burn 

Who would say Send me into blazing fire 

– Annelies Zijderveld

Annelies Zijderveld

Annelies Zijderveld is an Oakland-based writer whose poetry appears or is forthcoming in Ethel Zine, the Racket Reading Series Quarantine Journal, and Alexandria Quarterly. She is a contributing editor for Harpy Hybrid Review. She holds an MFA in poetry from New England College and a BA in Journalism from Southern Methodist University. Find her online at anneliesz.com.

Humility

I threw my father’s gold-filled pouch,
Proud in rage, upon the dust,
By the sandals of the stubborn priest,
Whose shabby, crumbling Umbrian church,

In praise of the sainted, silverless twin-
Physician to the Syrian poor-
I would, in time, and sweat repair
By hand, stone by beggared stone;

But first, emerging, on bare feet
I cross the bones around my cave
Tenderly, thus, escape my grave,
Past dainties foes would have me eat,

To disdain my tainted clothes for justice,
Stand naked before God and man,
Bereft of every vestment, chain,
Let and hindrance to true service;

Then to the Mount of the god of thieves,
To meditate, to find the words
For a sermon to my brethren birds
And courage to covenant with wolves.

Through the Sultan’s fire I pass
Unscathed, to witness to your truth,
I kiss the leper on his mouth 
And scold the sovereign for excess.

I never shrank from your command
But now must slip my enemies’ snare,
Escape alone, as David’s prayer
Slips from my bleeding hand.

October 3rd, 2020- 796 years later               

-Stephen Lang

Stephen Lang

Though from Scotland originally, Steve has travelled widely, especially in Africa, and currently lives in El Salvador with his family.  Steve’s poem, “Raphael” has been nominated by Ariel Chart for the 2020 Pushcart Prize. ‘Plum Tree Tavern’, Grand Little Things’, Oddball Magazine and ‘Indian Periodical’ have also published work from Steve’s new collection, Cuarentena, and poems have also been accepted for future publication at ‘Founder’s Favourites’ and ‘Bez & Co’.

Falling to Pieces

She saw another cell crash into loud oblivion
spoke of a filament fading to a shade of gray
sensed that any moment a roof might collapse.

She remembered words born from dust
burnt to floating ashes in mid-winter hours
and the frigid air of what is certain to come.

Quiet into the late hours of another dream
statue atop peaks lost in ghostly fogs
she may not take another step for fear of change.

Aware of the constant quakes below the oceans
it might be prudent for her to appear a fixture
for soon scars will deepen and reach to the core.

A mirror stands in the middle of her alcove
but she dares not let her reflection pose
the blue marble of her flesh more threatening. 

As if of the hand of Rodin her eyes in the dark
she ponders the weight of stone upon her breast
and the impending collapse of her futile matter.

Fabrice Poussin

Super Stars 

She was famous and she died
In a movie everyone tried to see.

He was an idol on a road to eternity
When he crashed onto the future.

Tabloids screamed names at the deli
And I stood in a daze before the M&M’s

Fabrice Poussin

Every Day at Dusk by Fabrice Poussin
Fear by Fabrice Poussin
Lady in White by Fabrice Poussin

Fabrice B. Poussin

Fabrice Poussin teaches French and English at Shorter University. Author of novels and poetry, his work has appeared in Kestrel, Symposium, The Chimes, and many other magazines. His photography has been published in The Front Porch Review, the San Pedro River Review as well as other publications.  

Choral Society

Douglas took my pause for breath as an invitation to stand up. I had to hold the rest of my sentence. I shot a glare in Corrin’s direction. The top of his head glistened oily and red. A drop of perspiration dangled off his fleshy jaw. He glared back at me.

D’andrée, on the other side of Corrin, as wiry as he was stout, allowed herself a sigh of exasperation. She had smeared her writing pad blue with lines from her pen. Her lips were so tightly pursed they had turned purple.

Douglas walked over to the credenza that took up the whole right wall of his office. It had a single hotplate on which rested a clear-glass pot of tea. A backlight filtered through a glass cylinder in the center of the pot. The swirling tealeaves looked as if they were alive in a miniature fish tank.

He took his time to prepare his mug–an industrial mug, the same color as an old factory machine–with milk and sugar, before he poured the tea into it. The delicacy with which he poured made the mug seem an almost sacrilegious vessel.

We kept our silence, so the only sound in the room was the simple click and swish of the milk, sugar and tea. Those sounds, even then, seemed strangely prescient.

As Douglas turned back to us, Corrin opened his mouth to get a jump on me. One glance from Douglas silenced him. D’andrée leaned back in her chair and smiled, until she saw me doing the same.

I knew what Corrin was going to say. My brain kept piling up responses like leaves in autumn. Of course we needed to account for audit regulations from the moment we chose our data structure. The cost in space was not an issue.

Douglas walked back to his desk. He sat down and leaned back in his tall leather chair, the mug between his hands at breast level. Its rising plume condensed in little drops on his chin.

His pose was straight from the movies, someone acting the role of a thoughtful executive, yet that cliché, so deliberately Douglas, allowed me to unclench my fists.

Why do I care? I asked myself. It’s not the end of the world if we don’t keep the old modification timestamps in the client record.

Another part of me responded: Yes, it is the end of the world.

Meanwhile Douglas placed his mug on his coaster, causing a sound somewhere between a thump and a click. The sound combined with the background hum of the office’s air-conditioning and the wet scrape of D’andrée’s pen to plunge me into a very strange vision.

I was no longer in the office. I was in the sanctuary of St Bartholomew’s on Regent and it was the previous Saturday. We were in a church because our usual community center hall was booked. We sat in the sanctuary’s choir stalls, two long rows, tenors and baritones facing sopranos and altos. Reverend Smalley stood to my left, between the altar and us. The same sounds had just happened.

“I apologize,” he was in the middle of saying, “for holding principle above compassion. Compassion should always come first.” Someone rustled in the choir stall. A pen scraped.

Once connected, the vision and the meeting moved forward together. I could not rewind to find out why Reverend Smalley had said what he had said. Douglas began to talk. Reverend Smalley tapped his conductor’s wand.

Douglas spoke with a lassitude approaching an American drawl, yet still in a cross-Atlantic accent. We all knew what he was about to do: he would recount his understanding of the problem, in his own glib way, and then propose a solution. We knew from experience we couldn’t break in, and especially we couldn’t try to fix any misconceptions he had developed.

I listened with only half an ear, as, in my vision, we were now singing most difficult section of Hubert’s “At round earth’s imagined corners”. I tapped my fingers together, out of sight, to remember where to breathe.

I could see clearly, in that double vision, how different the Coral Society environment was to this. Not that Reverend Smalley’s words couldn’t apply—I saw immediately I lacked the business equivalent of compassion for Corrin’s way of data structuring.

No. It was the “I apologize” part, spoken in Reverend Smalley’s cultured, peaceful voice. I didn’t have any way in this world to say “I apologize”, without Corrin taking it the wrong way. And by taking it the wrong way I meant stomping all over me in front of our CEO.

Douglas finished his formal recap and segued to his proposed solution. Corrin and I always found Douglas’s solutions amusing. They had a kind of simplicity born from his lack of appreciation for the boundaries of our world. They more often than not missed the point completely. But he was our CEO. So we practiced our ingenuity to fit our needs and practices into whatever strange tapestry he had created.

“So, Mallory,” Douglas said, when he had finished, “what’s your take on that little compromise?”

I paused and considered my words carefully. I wanted to get across the essence of Reverend Smalley’s attitude and have Corrin understand it.

“Your approach is legitimate,” I said. “Sometimes we have to consider things other than the principles of audit recovery. It wouldn’t be the best solution from my point of view to do what you’re suggesting”—although at that moment I couldn’t remember even vaguely what that was—“but I’m pretty sure I can figure out how to trace back mods when audit time rolls around.”

There. I had said what I felt was right and good. Corrin could disagree if he wanted to. He could miss my point. D’andrée could say what she wanted in the coffee room. But I had reconciled the two worlds.

DT Richards

DT Richards

DT Richards is the writing name of a Canadian writer currently living and working in Singapore, where he teaches game design and programming. His Christian fiction has been published online on his own website dtrichards.wordpress.com, and included in magazines such as Heart of Flesh and Ancient Paths, as well as the upcoming anthology “This Present Former Glory”.

These Things Happen

It was years before I told anyone this story. Even then, I didn’t tell it because I was proud of it. I told it because I was slightly drunk. 

We were sitting around a campfire, passing around a three-dollar bottle of whiskey. I watched the flames slide along the dry wood, listening to the crackling of blackened limbs regressing into embers and coals. The wood burnt quickly, turning black almost as soon as it touched the flame. It made us wonder how long it had been since it rained.

Luke picked up a broken branch beside the fire. “Don’t burn that one,” I said. There was a beetle burrowed in the log, large and black. One whose exoskeleton shone like gunmetal. We had seen it when it was still daylight. Michael watched it dig itself in directly under the bark. I broke into the rotten wood with my pocket knife. We tried to pick it up by getting it to grasp onto a twig, but when we touched it, it made a noise like a far-off bird call. A tiny sounding scream. I was fairly sure the beetle was still inside, and I thought that somehow I would be able to hear it over the fire—I was worried it would scream when the heat reached the point of being unbearable, when the beetle felt its insides heat up and its exoskeleton crack with the pressure from its swelling body.

Luke looked at me like he knew it was the scream I was worried about, but like that was the only thing I was worried about. Hearing the tangible evocation of pain. Bringing pain out of the abstract and making it real, but not the life connected with it. That life seemed to be allowed to remain nonexistent—as if he had that power. Not allowing life to come into existence by merely refusing to acknowledge it. As if pain wasn’t something that was avoidable, but life was. Or maybe he thought the two were inseparably connected—each life, a tiny scream that may or may not be heard over the flames around it. 

The fire reflected off of Luke’s glasses, centered over the black of his pupils. The flames were repeated flawlessly in miniature in Luke’s eyes, and something about that made me think that I was right. That he thought life and pain were inseparable. He tossed a different log into the fire and the image was gone, the air swelling with light and cinders that turned to ash before they reached the ground.

I picked up the plastic bottle that was at my feet and took a drink, the harsh and cheap whiskey flowing down my throat. I tossed the bottle to Michael. “Did I ever tell you about the time I got arrested, Luke?”

He shook his head and held out his hand for the bottle.

“It was probably six years ago. Before I knew you. And I’m only telling you this because I know you won’t tell anybody.” Luke nodded. “I’m serious,” I said. I watched the fire glinting off his glasses long enough for his smile to drop away.

*******

We were blackout-drunk when we left the bar. Some of this I remember and some I’ve pieced together from what other people told me about that night. Some of this is pure guesswork. I’m not totally sure which parts are true and which are speculation anymore. I’ve gone over this night in my head thousands of times, and now it’s just all one thing—one disjointed detail after another. I’m surprised I remember any of it, honestly.

We were drunk and belligerent. We walked out of The Red Cow and up the stairs to the sidewalk. The Red Cow was a bar that was located beneath another restaurant—closed now. There were these square wooden columns scattered around the room that made the place feel cramped even when it wasn’t busy, but honestly, that was part of its allure. That cramped feeling combined with the ubiquitous haze of tobacco and underground location made it feel like an old jazz club sometimes. That night it felt like a basement.

We took our time going up the narrow stairs. James was in front of me with his arms outstretched, holding onto both handrails. I watched red paint chips fall from his large hands as they slid up the rails. James was tall and heavily built. His size and his short beard made him look older than me, even though we were only nineteen.

The late night air was full and humid—hard to breathe. The sidewalk was crooked with alcohol. We were trying our hardest not to look drunk.

It was a Tuesday, so the streets were mostly empty at this time of night. The red, white, and blue banners from last week’s parade were still hanging on the light poles, swaying in the warm breeze. Across the street, two guys started yelling. We turned to see what was going on and saw that they had stopped walking. They were looking directly at us and yelling. They looked about our age, maybe in their early twenties, but smaller than us. Scrawny.

I couldn’t understand what they were saying. James couldn’t either, but he didn’t care. He started yelling back. I found myself yelling, calling them over to tell us whatever they were saying to our faces. They crossed the street, screaming at us the whole time. The smaller of the two guys walked up to James and pushed him. The other guy came at me. I guess he hit me because the next thing I remember is getting up from the ground.

The guy that had pushed James was lying on the ground, and there was blood on his shirt. It spread slowly outward in a circle, painting a bull’s-eye on his white, collared shirt. James had a slight smile on his face that slipped into a pale and blank stare. His lips parted in the middle and his eyelids drooped down across his pupils. It looked like his last drink was catching up to him.

The guy that hit me was looking down at his friend. “He has alcohol poisoning,” he said. “We have to take him to the hospital.”

“I have alcohol poisoning,” his friend said. It sounded convincing coming from him. The blood shone wet in the yellow glow of the streetlight.

“Come on. Help me carry him. He has alcohol poisoning.” The more they said it, the more sense it made. We had to get him to the hospital because he had alcohol poisoning. I reached down and put his arm over my shoulder. Luke picked up his other arm, and his friend picked up his legs. My shoulder was warm and damp.

He was light. We carried him a couple blocks to the nearest house. His friend set his legs down while he knocked on the door, leaving him standing, supported between me and James. It was probably three in the morning at this point, so it was a while before we got an answer. The friend kept knocking, alternately beating the heavy wood of the front door and ringing the doorbell. A middle-age woman in a nightgown answered the door.

3 a.m. and she opens her door to three drunk guys holding up another drunk guy bleeding from the chest. That must have been the last thing she was expecting.

“We need to get him to the hospital. Call an ambulance,” the friend said. She must have called the cops too, because they showed up first. They put the three of us in handcuffs and drove us to the police station. James and the guy who punched me were in one car, and I was in the back of another. I didn’t see either of them again for the rest of the night.

The holding cell was small and dirty and had a toilet in the corner. I laid down and dozed for a while, trying to sleep off some of the booze. I thought they might be more lenient on an underage drinking charge if I were at least close to sober by the time they talked to me again. But I was still very drunk when they woke me up.

They took me to an interrogation room. I sat there for a while, staring at the cup of water in front of me. I didn’t see how they needed to question me for underage drinking. I thought they were trying to make an example of me or something.

A cop walked in. “How did you know George Conley?”

“Who?”

“George Conley, the kid who’s dead.”

“What?” I looked at him blankly. They were just screwing with me. They knew I was still drunk and just wanted to scare me. “I don’t know any dead kid.”

He pulled a picture out of a folder and set it down in front of me. “You don’t know him? You were with him three hours ago. Tell me you don’t know him!”

“I don’t know him. That jerk picked a fight with me and James.”

“Well, that jerk is dead and your buddy James is going to prison for murder.” I started laughing, thinking how ridiculous it was to try to scare me like this.

The cop walked out and left me alone. I stared ahead at the blank walls until he came back. “You’re being charged for accessory to murder.” Something in his tone this time made me worried that he was serious. He was.

He told me that James had stabbed George Conley in the chest and that the knife had hit his heart. He told me that carrying George was the worst thing we could have done for him and that he was dead by the time they reached the hospital.

He wanted me to testify—to sign a statement saying that I had seen James stab him. He told me they would drop the charges of accessory to murder if I signed it. They put me back in the holding cell for a couple hours, letting me think it over.

A man was sitting on the toilet in the corner, leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He watched me as I walked in and started talking to me. I didn’t look at him. When I tried I just ended up looking at the jeans around his ankles and the dingy white underwear inside.

He stood and pulled his pants up, walking towards me. He continued talking, telling me that he was being charged with robbery. “You look young. What are you in for?”

I told him what had happened earlier that night, and he started laughing. 

“Boy,” he said, “you’re going to prison. Even I don’t believe you!”

*******

A grasshopper bigger than my thumb jumped out of the darkness and into the fire pit. He shoved his head into the white ash and tried to dig in, but stopped moving. I was quiet as I watched the grasshopper’s belly swell with the heat, wondering if it would pop.

“So what happened?” Luke asked.

“Oh, well, when they took me back to the interrogation room, I told them I didn’t see James stab him, and I wasn’t going to lie about it. Anyway, they eventually let me go, and James only got five to seven months in prison. But it turns out this guy that got stabbed was some politician’s kid. The family could have pushed for a longer sentence, but they knew their son was kind of wild and he was known to start fights. So, even they thought it was an accident or that it was probably their son’s fault to some extent. James basically got charged with a misdemeanor for murdering this guy.

“But still, that guy died. And it’s one of those things you think about afterwards and wonder if you could have prevented it. Like, what if we hadn’t carried him? Maybe he wouldn’t have died if we hadn’t carried him. But I don’t know. You can’t think about that too much. I mean, he had a lot of alcohol in his system so he was bleeding out pretty quickly anyway. There probably wasn’t anything we could do about it…I don’t know. I guess these things just happen sometimes.” 

The fire was dying down. I picked up the rotten log beside the fire and set it on the embers. It lit quickly, and I watched the flames surround the log. I looked for where I had cut away the bark amidst the flame and asked Michael to pass me the whiskey. I listened to the fire, waiting, hearing nothing.

-C.A. McKenzie

New Book Coming Soon!

At the risk of sounding vain, I’d like to put in one more plug for my upcoming collection of poems entitled The Wrenching of the Hip that Precedes the Blessing from the publisher Wipf and Stock. I sent the book out to a few beta-readers, and here’s what they had to say:

In this collection, Daniel Jones is a master at word-play, in poems such as “Becoming Apparent” and “Scenes from the Hoosier Countryside,” and “Ars Poetica (in Sapphics).”  Then, there are the emotional gut punches, such as “Veering,” and “The Second Greatest Commandment.” More than that, this poet is clever as hell with a punchline to make you think in almost every poem. These poems are not work for the reader, they are a rich dessert to savor and roll around the tongue. Each work leaves a sense of satisfaction and the “Oh, yes!” that great poems conjure.

–Julia Gordon-Bramer, author of Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath and the Decoding Sylvia Plath series.

The Wrenching of the Hip that Precedes the Blessing is both heartfelt and relatable as a poetry collection. Jones weaves together words that will inspire you while marveling at their clever combinations and metaphors. This deeply personal collection is one that will appeal to a wide spectrum of poetry enthusiasts. From the wordplay and imagery in “Scenes from the Hoosier Countryside” to the passion and aguish and “The Wolves Who Refuse to Lie Down with the Lamb,” there’s something for everyone in this collection.

-Tiffany Renee Harmon, Author of Suburban Secrets and Editor-in-Chief of Ephemeral Elegies (https://ephemeralelegies.com/)

The new collection will be out this Fall! Keep your eyes on this page for more updates.

Dylan Quincy is a Middle West Icon

(by Daniel R. Jones)

i.

When I first met Dylan Quincy, he had ice in his veins,
in the literal and proverbial sense.

On his one arm, he had a punk-y chick with a blunt-cut,
clad in black, lacquered nails and Doc Marten boots.
He held her like a grudge.

On his other arm, he had track marks.

Dylan told me to not postulate on the dissolution of ego, because the ego loved such talk.

He talked of transcendence, as if
car notes and
dirty dishes and
unread notifications:
the ballast bags of everyday life
didn’t exist.

Dylan wanted to— like Jesus—feel the power go out from him.
But given that—unlike Jesus—he cared very little who touched him.

If I relaxed my gaze, I’d get a bit cock-eyed
and his philosophy came into focus;
like some human-shaped magic eye puzzle.

His life was a burnt offering. So what if it was a slow burn?

ii. 

Without a lung full of flower, Dylan’s thoughts bumped up against one another like railway cars,
the link
              and pin coupler never quite
      aligning.

He couldn’t connect one to the other in a way that formed a coherent
                                                                     train
                                                                     of
                                                                   thought.

Dylan liked that the DSM-5 calls it a ‘hypomanic episode.’ 

“Because it really does feel like an episode of some action thriller,” he’d say.

“The boring parts of life all stripped away;
my every action imbued with a sense of meaning,
distilled seven times over;
the minutiae of everyday life
left on the cutting room floor.

Life in mania is the way it’s meant to be seen.
No fluff.
The Director’s Cut.”

He ended his homily with “Such a life is deeply satisfying.”

That lie the lone tarnish on his otherwise silver tongue.



iii.

Dylan Quincy once told me a koan disguised as joke:

Jim Morrison had a spray bottle of LSD-25 in one hand and a rag in the other. He was spritzing the acid on a sliding glass door, wiping it down every few sprays. Aldous Huxley happened to be passing by, and he asked Jim what he was up to.

“I’m cleaning the Doors of Perception,” he answered.

The Lizard King finished his chore. The door was perfectly clean; there were no streak marks at all. In fact, it was so transparent that you couldn’t tell the door was there at all. Just then, William Blake passed the two, and ran headlong into the glass door, bumping his nose and injuring himself in the process.

He cursed at Jim Morrison. 

“Why are you angry?” Morrison retorted, “I was cleansing the Doors of Perception, that I might see the infinite.”

“Perhaps you should’ve left a streak mark,” Huxley responded. “That way, you never forget you’re inside.”

I told Dylan I didn’t understand.

“Then you do!” he said. “If you don’t get it, you understand it perfectly. Glad to see you know you’re inside.”

iiii.

Still, there were times when it seemed he almost broke through.

Such as Golden Hour on that lush spring evening,
when Dylan and I hoofed it fourteen blocks to get to his favorite public park.

At the first scent of lilac, we remembered we were eternal.

He had me on his wavelength when he turned and said, like a benediction:

“In April, every loamy, dew-drenched field is holy ground. Oh, God, forgive us the times we neglect to take our sandals off.”

His life was a drink offering. So what if it was a slow leak?


iiiii.

What called him up today, so many years after his memory finally faded?
Perhaps it’s just survivor’s guilt in our ceaseless spiritual war.

Not so hard to sell a soul that’s never been used.

When I last saw Dylan, he had one shot
                                       liquor bottles strewn about his feet
like discarded cups of communion.

An eyeless Samson, slumped
against what wasn’t
a load-bearing
pillar.

Didn’t anyone tell you Dylan? 

Too much Keurouac is like vinegar to your soul.

When you get the message, you hang up the phone.

You can lose the title of “Seeker.”

It happens when you’d rather seek than find.

When you fall in love with the questions,
to the detriment of the answers.

No burnt offering,
no drink offering,
just the smoldering embers of
“the fire in your belly.”

From rotgut,
not from zeal.

The Wolves are Inadmissible who refuse to lie down with the lamb (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

We’re a peculiar people; out of context,
and those are two separate clauses.
But a faction of the dead can’t long for heaven 
if the swords must be beaten to plowshares 
and spears to pruning hooks.

The Cherubim, fierce and fey with 
hot steel flickering side to side
stand guard at the gates of Paradise, saying:
“The wolves are inadmissible
who refuse to lie down with the Lamb.”

But the goats on the left
follow a star that doesn’t lead to Bethlehem.
“No matter,” they say. 
“It’s heaven enough to prove the atheists wrong.”
The goats proceed to damnation.

Meanwhile, Jesus took bread, saying
“Take, eat; this is my body.”
And his body, blessed and broken
was plenty sufficient for the multitude.
How is it that ye do not understand?